POACHERS R US: Overfishing of lobster pushes Hawaiian monk seals toward extinction. Who's accountable

Just a few years ago, the seal likely would have been feasting on lobsters once abundant around the reefs. Not a single lobster can be seen in the video, although a seal is shown checking an abandoned lobster trap.  Evidence shows the lobsters were fished out under the auspices of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a Honolulu-based federal panel commonly known as "Wespac."  

Given their starved conditions, it's obvious these seals have much to learn about fishing. Some do not seem to have the strength to lift detached rocks on sandy submerged banks that scientists recently thought were barren of life. The video reveals that the fish that hide under these rocks move much faster than any lobster and are far more difficult for the young seals to capture. Moreover, scientists say the fish are not as nutritious as the fat-rich crustaceans.

In one scene in the video, an emaciated young seal dies. "To survive, the seals must focus on other prey," says biologist James Maragos of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­ vice. "Given the starved appearance of the seals in the video, and the fact that four out of five pups do not survive to adulthood, the video suggests that seals are less successful, if not failing, to eat sufficient food as pups."  

The video, revealing young monk seal behavior never seen before, proved particularly poignant for scientists who have worked many years on puzzling questions of why so many young seals have been starving to death, and whether overexploitation of the lobsters had anything to do with it.  

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, stretching from Nihoa to Kure Atoll, contain the vast majority of coral reefs in U.S. waters. They preserve a prehistoric record of the volcanic forces that shaped Hawai'i, and are home to 7,000 marine species, half of which are found there and nowhere else. Native Hawaiians call this 1,200-mile region a pu'uhonua, a place of refuge and safety. It was first protected as a national wildlife refuge in 1909 by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, and again as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve under President Bill Clinton. They form the second-largest protected area on Earth, but are in grave danger of losing their protection, which does not bode well for the future of the seal.  

Scientists consider the monk seal a "sentinel" species indicative of the overall health of the islands' coral reef ecosystem. Getting a better understanding of the condition of these seals, they say, will help aid in the development of policies needed to prevent the destruction of this ecosystem. The islands are in a near-pristine state, but fishermen familiar with them say they are also quite fragile, and their experience has shown that the margin of error is so tiny that any given species could be wiped out in short order.

Wespac's Rapacious Management

The dynamics do not reduce to a simple "jobs vs. the environment" formula. Fishermen, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, diving guides and Governor Linda Lingle are among the many people of this state who have called for protecting the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Only nine permitted commercial bottomfishers currently fish in these islands. And they tell the state that they're losing an average of between S7 ,800 and S38,000 per vessel per year. But these islands support abundant jobs and tourism dollars in the distant main Hawaiian Islands (though tourists and anglers are encouraged to love the Northwest­ ern Islands only from afar).

For example, the green sea turtle, or honu, which nests primarily in the Northwestern Islands, lures countless visitors to the main islands, and those visitors spend dollars not only on diving gear, boat charters and snorkeling lessons, but in hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. It's all part of Hawai'i's $800- million ocean-recreation industry.

"The green sea turtle is the single most important species people to come to see in Hawai'i," says Matt Zimmerman, who runs Island Divers Hawai'i, a guide service located at Hickam Air Force Base. His business takes divers out to see turtles born on the Northwestern Islands that have mi­ grated to reefs around O'ahu, one of the few places on Earth where a visitor is practical assured of seeing one. "It's vitally important to keep that distant ecosystem in­ tact so we have something here for future generations to see."

Rick Gaffney, president of the Hawai'i Fishing and Boating Association, and one of about 12,000 power-boat fishers in the state, said the islands need maximum protection in part to prevent the destruction of vulnerable fish stocks. However, he also sees a bigger picture. "I think the North­ western Hawaiian Islands are a national treasure - not just a national treasure, but an international treasure."

To Native Hawaiians, the Northwestern Islands are sacred lands, says Vicky Takamine, president of the 'Ilio'ulaokalani Coalition. ''Because they are the oldest is­ lands, they have a very special and very spiritual connection to us," she says. "These lands can sustain Native Hawaiians, but they cannot support the rest of the world."

In a letter two years ago to Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Lingle urged permanent protection of the islands as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in order to "protect both jobs and the environment."

Stephanie Fried, of the Hawai'i office of the nonprofit group Environmental Defense, praised the governor for "showing true leadership by standing up for the existing strong protections, which protect jobs in the main Hawaiian Islands." Fried says the governor "listened to a wide spectrum of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, fishers, fish processors, divers and environmentalists who were all working to protect one of the last great ecosystems on Earth."

And yet, a small cadre of individuals has held an ironclad grip over the Northwestern Islands for more than a quarter century and gives every 'indication it will not let them go. This group, led by Wespac, includes the nine boats that catch bottomfish in the Northwestern Islands. Wespac was created by Congress in 1976 to help write fishing regulations for the Western Pacific, or about half of all U.S. territorial waters.

From the early 1980s to 2000, a couple dozen trappers caught a reported 15 million lobsters in the Northwestern Islands, not counting any additional numbers that were poached. They also removed close to an­ other 200 species of unintended "bycatch" including octopus, another item in the monk seal diet. That small group of fishers, even in concert with Wespac, could not have wrought such remarkable damage to the lobster and monk seal without plenty of help. Wespac's lobster fishing regulations were ratified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (then known as the National Marine Fisheries Service), an agency within the Commerce Department. NOAA Fisheries can overrule Wespac's regulations, but rarely does so, and in fact the record shows it was a willing participant in Wespac's rapacious management of the lobster.  

Year after year in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the two agencies allowed the lobster trappers to kill as many as 500 percent of their own quotas with impunity. During this time, they allowed the unlawful catch of undersized juveniles and egg-bearing females to continually increase as a percent­ age of the overall lobster haul. In November 1995, they decided to legalize the capture of these lobsters as part of a strategy ostensibly to avoid the total ruination of the lobster stocks.  

This plan, developed by scientists at NOAA's Honolulu Lab, collapsed four years later when a federal judge finally shut the fishery down in response to a lawsuit filed by Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice. "The record strongly suggests that the [lobster] fishery contributes to the starvation of the monk seals," Judge Samuel King wrote. Meanwhile, through­ out the 1990s, Wespac and NOAA Fisheries dismissed at least 20 letters from the federal Marine Mammal Commission calling for a reduction in the lobster catch to protect the monk seal.  

Wespac, which continues to demand the reopening of the lobster fishery, derives its power in large part through its strong political connections to Sen. Dan Inouye. Inouye, who regularly sends hefty appropriations Wespac's way, readily helps Wespac and its friends whenever a bureaucracy threatens to clamp down on their activities, according to a former White House staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity.  "This is a story of a very small number of people holding 50 percent of the U.S.  ocean resources hostage," Fried says.

Wespac's executive director throughout its entire 27-year history is a former congressional staffer, Kitty M. Simonds, who maintains close relations with Inouye's office.  

In 2003, Inouye delivered $13 million to bail out Hawai'i's longline fishing industry, including $5 million for "economic disaster assistance" and $5 million for fishing gear research, and over the years has steered millions more to pay for Wespac's discredited fishing plans. Calls to Inouye's office were not returned before press time.  

Monk Seals' Tragic Decline

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. The seals are in a race against time - not just for their own individual survival, but also for the species itself. At the seal's most important breeding area, French Frigate Shoals, where the critter-cam video was shot, few female pups survive to adulthood. As older females move past their breeding years, the number of young females will be far too small to replace the older ones. Scientists say a catastrophic population crash seems a certainty in the not-too-distant future.

''It's already beginning," says one NOAA Fisheries scientist in the agency's science lab in Honolulu. "Some of our older females are dying right now."

The world population of monk seals numbered 1,409 in 2001, according to a recent draft recovery plan for the seal. NOAA Fisheries' current count is now about 1,300, but some scientists say the number may now be as low as 1,200. A new draft recovery plan, written by the federal monk seal recovery team, says the seals' condition "perhaps has never been more serious."

Wespac's Simonds denies any responsibility for these tragic declines, and as far as the lobster is concerned, disputes that a tragedy has even occurred. ''None of our stocks are overfished," she says. Wende Goo, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries in Hawai'i, recently said that it "wouldn't necessarily describe the lobster resource as depleted." She said the agency has closed the fishery "so we don't end up with an overfished stock and so we could get a better definition of the population."

Goo also refused to confirm reports from scientists who contend the lobsters' decline was a major factor in the monk seals' de­ cline. Instead, she pointed to ongoing studies that continue to explore this as a possible connection. But when pressed, she refused to release any of those studies, even ones going back as far as 1998.

Scientists associated with other agencies beg to differ. "No rational person would expect a monk seal to swim past a lobster and not eat it," says Beth Flint, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency is part of the Department of the Interior, not the Department of Commerce, which may explain why its scientists feel more free to speak openly about NOAA Fisheries and Wespac. "Right now everyone is afraid to speak up," says a former NOAA scientist in Hawai'i. "There is this tremendous intimidation factor" within the Department of Commerce. One reason for this fear, some scientists surmise, is Wespac's swift and direct pipeline to Inouye, and his power over the agency's budget.  

Wespac has developed plans for four fisheries in the Northwestern Islands, including a bottomfishing plan launched in 1986; the lobster plan dating to 1981; a new fishery for a wide variety of species living among the coral reefs; and a fourth that would introduce the mining of precious corals in the Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. Wespac says these fisheries were designed to protect the ecosystem, but scientists not associated with Wespac are far from persuaded, and in fact worry about any plan to remove nutrients from an ecosystem that is starving monk seals to death.  

"The direction we have taken the last 25 years jeopardizes our goal of protecting this ecosystem," says conservation biologist Bruce Wilcox of the University of Hawai'i. "I would say that there is a very serious question about the sustainability of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands' ecosystem if commercial fishing is allowed to continue. While the scientific data is sparse, all the evidence taken together points to a very vulnerable system that has been overexploited in the past, and if we are to leave it in fairly good shape for future generations we need to pull back right now."  

Sharks Running the Aquarium  

Imagine for a moment the CEO of Weyerhaeuser appointed to run the national forests. As part of the deal, he gets to keep his old job. Federal law wouldn't allow it, of course. It's a simple conflict of interest. But when it comes to the folks who regulate ocean fishing, conflicts of interest are not only permissible; they’re a regular part of the game.

Consider Sean Martin of Hawai'i, and the four bats he wears.

As a fisherman, Martin earns a living from the sea. His business sells equipment, so others can, too. As an activist, he is president of the Hawai'i Longliners Association, a trade group that is fighting environmental regulations to protect endangered sea turtles (see sidebar). And, as a member of Wespac, be has voted in favor of fishing rules that would increase his income. In fact, in recent months he has voted several times to do just that by backing rules to open swordfish longlining in the North Pacific.  

Both Martin and his business partner, Jim Cook - himself a council member and chair in the 1990s - have helped make the rules and profit from the rules. And sometimes, they even break the rules. Some would call that poaching. In 1992, their fishing vessel Petite One was caught poaching spiny and slipper lobster in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, according to Carroll Cox, a former special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu. NOAA seized 1,470 lobster tails and fined the captain, Ed Timmony (the husband of a former Wespac member), and the boat's owners $40,480 for illegally possessing undersized lobsters and female lobsters with eggs, and for failing to maintain accurate and complete lobster catch reports.

In 1993 and 1995, NOAA fined Pacific Ocean Producers $5,000 for failing to file commercial fishing logbooks. And in 1999, NOAA fined Pacific Ocean Producers $10,000 for fishing within a monk seal protected zone in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Martin and Cook co-own the company, a major commercial fishing equipment supplier based in Honolulu.

Rick Gaffney questions whether Wespac members who violate fishing laws should be allowed to continue to serve on the panel. "I don't know any other place in America where someone who is tasked with management of a resource and who violates the rules is allowed to continue." On the other hand, at a recent public meeting Walter Ikehara, a program manager for the state of Hawai'i's Department of Aquatic Resources and a member of Wespac's main science advisory panel, defended the right of prosecuted and penalized poachers to participate in decisions affecting the management of the Northwestern Islands.

After a quarter-century of management by Wespac and its conflict-of-interest ma-. chine, a broad coalition including fisher­ men, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, conservationists and tourist industry representatives rose up several years ago with an unprecedented groundswell of sup­ port for strong protection of the islands. In 2000 and 2001, the Clinton White House issued executive orders giving permanent protection to the islands while forbidding any new fishing and closing the lobster trapping, although allowing bottomfishing to continue at current levels.

Yet Wespac remained defiant as ever. Soon after, NOAA Fisheries rejected Wespac's coral reef and precious coral fishery plans for the Northwestern Islands because they violated the executive orders. The lobster plan, which also violates the executive orders, has not been addressed by NOAA. And yet, Wespac refuses to amend its plans to conform with the orders or its closed areas and fishing caps. Moreover, in its recent draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for its bottomfish plan, Wespac fails to incorporate the effects of the executive orders. "This DEIS is fatally flawed and should be withdrawn or replaced," says Dave Raney of the Sierra Club in Hawai'i.

A decision on the DEIS is now pending before NOAA.

But Wespac's fishers say the executive orders shouldn't be followed. "

None of us are millionaires," says Gary Dill, who used to fish for lobster and now catches bottomfisb under Wespac's authority. Dill opposes any plan to protect the Northwestern Islands that doesn't allow fishing there to expand. "We make a mini­ mal living, a scratch living. We've all got a passion for fishing. It's what I live for."

In its reports, Wespac states that both bottomfishers and lobster trappers came to Hawai'i from other areas where stocks had been overfished. Takamine, of the 'Ilio'ulaokalani Coalition, is among many who expect them to go somewhere else when there is nothing left here to harvest. ''When there is no money to made then they will go elsewhere," she says. "For Native Hawaiians on the other hand, this is our ancestral home. We will riot be leaving. If we leave there will be no protection for it. We will have turned our back on our responsibility - and that is not going to happen."  

They Sell Sanctuary

The executive orders required the permanent protection of the North­ western Islands, and created a citizens-based Reserve Advisory Council, with strict conflict of interest rules, to help write a management plan. But the ink was not even out of the pen when Wespac and certain officials · within the Commerce Department had al­ ready begun a concerted campaign to undermine protections for the islands.  

The council's first major task was to help create an operating plan for the reserve. In June 2001, it submitted 50 pages in comments to the National Ocean Service (NOS), an agency within the Commerce Department that runs the National Marine Sanctuary program. The council intended to establish a framework for the strong conservation measures mandated by the executive orders which established the reserve, while also recognizing the islands as ceded lands held in trust by the state. At about the same time, NOS launched an initiative to designate the reserve as a National Marine Sanctuary, apparently with a far weaker set of regulations in mind. In addition, Wespac has authority under federal law to propose fishing regulations for the sanctuary. "The sanctuary process could weaken existing protections," says Cha Smith, executive director of KAHEA: the Hawaiian Environ­ mental Alliance. "It will depend entirely on the public to be able to offset any attempts to weaken those protections."

NOS, meanwhile, dismissed almost all of the Reserve Advisory Council's comments, favoring instead ideas that matched almost word for word previously published Wespac documents, In doing so, it seemed intent on shoving Wespac's disapproved fishing plans down the council's throat, including provisions for more bottomfishing, renewed lobstering, and the mining of precious corals in the reserve.  

Meanwhile, a report from Environmental Defense showed that Wespac had vastly over­ stated the economic losses that would result under the reserve, while ignoring the benefit to the tourism and ocean recreation industry in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The group also revealed that NOS had gutted language protecting the monk seal and eliminated references to Native Hawaiian cultural practices and historic connections to the islands.

NOS, realizing it faced a potential public-relations fiasco, has said it would revise the document so that it aligns with the executive orders. There's no indication yet, however, whether its new plan will actually align closely with the executive orders or with Wespac's intent to eviscerate the re­ serve. At the same time, the NOS has re­ moved some of the more active council leaders who favored the strong conservation measures that have enjoyed broad public support. The council meets again on Jan. 20 and 21.

The state of Hawai'i also seeks to protect state waters around the Northwestern Is­ lands by establishing a refuge. It plans public meetings for February.

It remains to be seen whether the final results will protect the monk seal and the ecosystem that supports it. Judge Samuel King, who shut down the lobster fishery to protect the seal, has yet to be asked whether Wespac's new fishing plans might cause it further harm, or whether the commercial removal of nutrients under those plans could in any way be lawful.

Of course, his courtroom has never viewed the critter-cam video and its depiction of emaciated seals foraging for fish. At least, not yet.

Paul Koberstein