Rogues of The Pacific: Exploiting a Fragile Coral Reef Ecosystem for Fun and Profit

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, America's largest coral reef ecosystem, have nurtured an exotic web of life for millions of years.

Because of their isolated location — they are further from continents than any other islands on earth — life evolved on its own terms. In the Hawaiian Archipelago (see map at right), of which the northwestern islands are a part, about 25 percent of all species occur nowhere else in the world.

While the Main Hawaiian Islands have been dramatically altered by humans, the northwestern islands remain as undisturbed as any place on earth. It's simple to see why. Human access to the 1,200-mile long chain (about the distance from Seattle to San Diego) has never been easy.

The public prefers the northwestern islands to remain undisturbed. At numerous hearings on plans to determine the islands' future, people overwhelmingly and repeatedly gave support for fully protecting and preserving the islands as they are.

Yet a tiny handful of politically connected individuals have long been lusting for whatever undersea riches the fragile islands might bear. Over the years, they have been harvesting bottomfish, lobsters and other species from the islands — with some catastrophic results.

They are now clamoring for state and federal permission to take much, much more — even though they have been shown to have severely damaged parts of the ecosystem.

Since 2001, Native Hawaiian and conservation groups have compiled federal data indicating that fishers have been depleting Hawai`i’s bottomfish at alarming, ecologically unsustainable, rates. In 2004, the federal fisheries agency admitted that overfishing for bottomfish was occurring throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. In 2005, a study by conservation groups confirmed overfishing in the northwestern islands. Moreover, documents reviewed by Cascadia Times demonstrate that fishers triggered a dramatic collapse of the lobster in the northwestern islands. There's mounting evidence the boom-and-bust lobster fishery nearly wiped out a critically endangered marine mammal in the process.

This mammal, the Hawaiian monk seal, has been a tragic victim of commercial fishing. The most endangered pinniped (a grouping of marine mammals that includes the seal, walrus and sea lion) in the Pacific Ocean, it lives almost exclusively in the northwestern islands. The monk seal began losing population to starvation just as the lobster population collapsed in the late 1980s, according to field reports written by scientists at the time.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now believes that it's “likely” that the monk seal relies on the lobster as an important part of its diet — after years of refusing to say so. In October 2005, the federal agency also determined that the lobster fishery cannot be sustained without compromising the natural character and biological integrity of the ecosystem. NOAA has never come so close to acknowledging that the lobster fishery was at least in part responsible for the monk seal's collapse.

And yet, this small group of fishers and its politically powerful backers steadfastly deny that they have caused any harm to the monk seal or the coral reef ecosystem. Their allies include a federally funded fishery management council known as Wespac, which has not been shy about spending tax dollars to promote the interests of commercial fishers in the northwestern islands.

Wespac, known officially as the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, was one of eight regional fishery councils created by Congress under there 1976 Magnuson Act to help ensure that U.S. waters are not overfished. But Wespac, which is largely controlled by commercial fishing interests in Hawai`i, is seen today as a strident advocate for expanding fishing in sensitive marine habitats.

Wespac's methods include unethical and possibly illegal tactics to confuse, mislead and misinform the public, other government agencies and even the White House. Local small-boat fishing groups have requested a federal investigation of the Council.

Wespac's goal is to open lobster, coral reef fish and precious coral fisheries in the northwestern islands — each of which has been declared illegal on multiple occasions by NOAA. And yet, Wespac continues to churn through tax dollars as it dredges up old proposals again and again in hopes that it might eventually sneak them through the regulatory process.

In December 2005, for example, Wespac approved a set of these illegal lobster, coral reef fish and precious coral fishing plans without allowing the public, the state of Hawai`i or NOAA to see the final versions.

Wespac also appears to be under no obligation to tell the truth about its proposals. For example, in March 2005, Wespac supported the reopening of lobster fishing after determining that the monk seal would not be harmed by it. Wespac based its decision on its own interpretation of an important monk seal study. But according to the scientist who conducted the study, however, Wespac's interpretation was completely false.

And in January 2005, Wespac outraged leaders in the Native Hawaiian community by airing radio advertisements falsely stating that conservation measures proposed for the northwestern islands would strip away their traditional rights.

Documents obtained by Cascadia Times under the Freedom of Information Act and through other means also show that:

■ Wespac council members or the companies they own have repeatedly violated federal fishing regulations. Six times in the 15 years, they were prosecuted and paid fines for illegally fishing in closed areas; illegally retaining juvenile and egg-bearing female lobsters; falsifying fishing logbooks; and illegally fishing for and retaining billfish and other species without a permit. In each case, NOAA issued fines against companies owned by Jim Cook, a former longtime Wespac chairman, and his business partner Sean Martin, a current council member (see page 4).

■ Wespac has been spending federal coral reef conservation funds to promote damaging fishing methods in fragile coral reef habitat areas. For example, Wespac spent coral reef conservation funds to sponsor a television program in January 2005 that depicted a recreational fishing trip into monk seal habitat on and near Nihoa Island in the northwestern islands. The boat, shown in the photos below and on page 11, came within only a few feet of contact with a swimming monk seal. The program didn't warn viewers that harassing a monk seal is against the law.

■ Wespac has also used coral reef conservation money to misinform the public about its own conservation efforts. In March 2005 it printed 210,000 copies of a brochure that was delivered inside the Sunday Honolulu Advertiser. The brochure, which promoted resource extraction in the northwestern islands, greatly exaggerated the size of Wespac's current proposal to protect the area. The brochure claimed that Wespac in 2001 proposed to set aside 24 percent of federal waters as a “no-take zone.” In fact, Wespac proposed a no-take zone of just 14 percent of the area.

■ Wespac pays its executive director, Kitty M. Simonds, an annual salary of $187,000 — more than either the Secretary of Commerce or the Administrator of NOAA is paid. Simonds receives about $20,000 a year in “profit-sharing” bonuses, even though Wespac as a federal entity receives all its funding from the taxpayer and generates no profits from any of its programs (see page 4). Simonds, who has held that position for more than 20 years, apparently has swift access to Senator Dan Inouye's office. When a federal bureaucrat gives them trouble, Inouye’s office has a history of intervening on behalf of the council. Simonds refused to grant an interview with Cascadia Times. “You’re my favorite friend,” she said to this reporter as she jabbed her finger into my chest, spun on her heels and walked away.

■ Wespac has been lobbying the Hawai`i Legislature to pass legislation that would make it nearly impossible to establish marine reserves in state waters as a means for protecting and conserving resources. If passed, this law might open state waters in the northwestern islands to commercial extraction, and could even eliminate existing marine protected areas throughout the Main Hawaiian Islands while blocking any future reserves. The lobbying itself may violate a federal prohibition against spending tax dollars for that purpose (see page 9).

■ Wespac plans to increase its annual spending by 25 percent throughout the rest of the decade, even though federal regulations have sharply reduced the fisheries it manages. It had wanted to increase spending by 100 percent, but that idea was shot down by NOAA (see page 10). NOAA did approve the 25 percent increase.

■ NOAA officials have found evidence that Wespac has misspent coral reef conservation funds in other ways. A 2003 email from a NOAA official said the agency was not certain that Wespac had spent coral reef educAtion funds for that purpose.

Local fishing groups have launched a call for a federal investigation of Wespac. They have petitioned the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce to undertake that inquiry. Wespac has written a memo to the Inspector General claiming it has followed the law and has done nothing wrong.

The Waianae Boat Fishing Club and the Oahu Game Fish Club contend that Wespac “has engaged in a pattern of improper and dishonest conduct,” says Native Hawaiian fisher William Aila. “This pattern includes a programmatic failure to meet legal mandates and the questionable use of federal funds to support its campaign” to undermine other ongoing efforts to protect the islands.

In addition, many others have called on Wespac to withdraw its fishing plans. This includes members of a broad network of fishers, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, kupuna (elders), scientists, environmentalists, divers and Hawai'i residents. Groups associated with this network include the `Ilio`ulaokalani Coalition, Environmental Defense-Hawai`i, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance; and the Sierra Club-Hawai`i.

Known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands hui (a Hawaiian term meaning group), this network has, for more than five years, provided information on the region to the general public, and has kept Hawai`i's people informed of the more than thirty federal and state public hearings and scoping sessions and more than 100 public meetings.

In the last five years, more than 112,000 comments in support of the strongest possible protection for the islands have been submitted to state and federal entities. Vicky Holt Takamine, president of the `Ilio`ulaokalani Coalition of respected cultural Hawaiian rights and traditional practices.

“When we put out the call, our communities respond by showing up at hearing after hearing,” she says. “It takes a great deal of time and effort but we work hard to arrive at a coordinated and unified approach.”

This story is not just a cautionary tale about a rogue organization acting like a bully and exhibiting questionable behavior as it attempts to further exploit the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It also raises questions about the integrity of overall U.S. ocean policy.

Over the last few years, two major studies of U.S. ocean policies have sought changes to correct numerous defects. And yet, Congress has not enacted any of their recommendations.

If Wespac is allowed to continue operating as it has, there’s nothing to prevent other regional councils — which have their own failed fisheries to worry about — from following its example. The health of all oceans under U.S. jurisdiction may be at greater risk than the authors of either of the two studies ever contemplated.

The Case for Conservation

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, it is often said, are best loved only from afar.

To many, the question is not so much whether the islands can support commercial fishing, but whether it can also allow recreational fishing, tourism, extreme sports, bioprospecting, and increased vessel traffic — any kind of exploitation at all — without suffering ecological collapse. Bruce Wilcox, a conservation biologist at the University of Hawai`i, says the ecosystem is too narrow and fragile to support anything other than traditional Native Hawaiian uses.

In September 2005, the state of Hawai`i determined that the islands cannot support recreational fishing and anything more than minimal entry without incurring serious ecological damage, such as from the introduction of alien species or the disturbance of highly sensitive habitats.

Hawai`i Gov. Linda Lingle declared that the only way to preserve the ecosystem is to fully protect it in its entirely. The state created a “no extraction” refuge in state waters, from 0 to 3 miles from shore, with no commercial or recreational fishing allowed and access sharply restricted by permit only.

Lingle called on the federal government to provide similar protection in federal waters, out to 50 miles.

In 2000 and 2001, President Clinton issued two Executive Orders establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve and called for the a process to initiate a process to consider the area as a National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary, the orders said, should “complement and supplement” protections in the Reserve.

This process is being run by the National Ocean Service, an arm of NOAA in the Department of Commerce, which also houses Wespac. Given Wespac's ability to influence the Sanctuary Program, many people throughout the islands are concerned that it might weaken existing protections in federal waters, in violation of Executive Order provisions, and perhaps even influence the state to weaken its new protections.

With few exceptions, existing sanctuaries allow almost any commercial activity to occur except oil and gas exploration and development.

“If the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands becomes a true sanctuary, one that prohibits commercial fishing and other uses, it will demonstrate recognition of the highly unique nature of this region,” says Jay Nelson of the Pew Charitable Trust. “As the most remote island chain in the world, it deserves such recognition and protection.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts is proposing a buyout program that would compensate the eight remaining commercial bottomfishers for ending fishing in the northwestern islands. Pew has offered to help finance the plan.

For the past five years, documentation provided by the National Oceans Service has indicated that they intend to roll back existing protections in federal waters, introduce new fisheries, and even open the area practitioners, says her organization is seeking maximum protection for the islands and full recognition of Native to “experimental” tourism in monk seal breeding grounds.

Stephanie Fried, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense-Hawai`i says “consistent efforts by the Sanctuary Program to reduce or eliminate Reserve protections have generated tremendous alarm throughout the islands.”

In its draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed sanctuary, NOAA is not proposing complete protection and a ban on commercial activity, says KAHEA Executive Director, Cha Smith. “This issue has had the greatest public involvement of any resource protection issue in Hawai'i. There will no doubt be tremendous backlash if NOAA's ‘Sanctuary’ undermines the people's unwavering call for full protection and no commercial activity in the NWHI.”

But a few fishers think they have a right to fish the islands, as if they own the area. Says Gary Dill, one of eight bottomfishers in northwestern islands. “I'm utterly dismayed to see our federal government working its way very slowly since 2001 towards what I personally can see is the greatest theft in these islands since the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. They are fixing to rob us blind.”

Other fishers, however, believe that the islands should be protected from the likes of Wespac.

Zenen Ozoa, owner of the commercial bottomfishing vessel Kaima Kai, another of the permitted NWHI bottomfish fishers, agrees. “The area needs and deserves protection,” he wrote in a Dec. 26, 2005, letter to Gov. Lingle indicating his support for “efforts to ban fishing in the entire area.”

Ozoa described the “challenging” nature of fishing in the islands: “As you know, the high cost of fuel, the distances that we are required to travel, and the normal increases in overall operational expenses has taken any real potential for profit out of this business. The price of fish realized at the Honolulu auction has not risen sufficiently to cover the cost of operations. Low profitability, uncertainty, zero growth potential, and jurisdictional ‘land mines’ provide the perfect recipe for business failure.”

Ozoa supports a buyout of the remaining bottomfish fishers and has offered his assistance to the Governor in facilitating the process.

Buzzy Agard, a Native Hawaiian kupuna and former head of the Ahi Longlining Association fished commercially for ten years in the northwestern islands 60 years ago. He calls for the full closure of the islands which are thought to serve as nurseries for the struggling fisheries of the Main Hawaiian Islands. He quit fishing there long ago after he found it easy to unintentionally wipe out the fish in localized areas. Agard, from a family of fish processors and a founding member of the Wespac council became a vocal critic of the organization as they ensured the crash of the spiny lobster fishery through mismanagement.

Agard wanted the NWHI lobster fishery to be sustainably managed for future generations, but the Wespac-led wipeout of the spiny lobster population was aimed at immediate profit for a few, dooming the fishery. Agard says the islands need the strongest possible protection.

“The habitat around the atolls is very small. It is much better to try to bring the place here in films, than to take people out there. Human presence is going to have an adverse affect.”

Empire Building

Under the Magnuson Act, Wespac's charge is to develop fishery management plans for U.S. waters around Hawai`i, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas and several farflung atolls in American possession. Wespac is one of eight regional fishery councils in the U.S.

Though its territory, encompassing 1.5 million square miles, is the largest, its fisheries are the smallest in the U.S. Wespac, like the seven other councils has, in theory, no real power or authority to make decisions or policy. By law, the regional councils are advisory bodies; they can suggest policies, but only federal agencies like NOAA can make policies. Any plans Wespac approves are merely recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce. Given Wespac’s tight relationship with Inouye’s office, however, these claims may be true.

At a hearing, Wespac chairman Roy Morioka introduced the organization last year as the “federal policy making agency for federal waters” in the western Pacific. In December 2005, Wespac even claimed in public documents that it sets policy for all “offshore waters in the U.S. Pacific Islands” (which would include federally protected U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuges).

Wespac's goal is to open three fisheries and expand a fourth in the northwestern islands — none of which is legal under the Executive Orders. In this effort, Wespac is spending tax dollars to combat NOAA and the state of Hawai`i, each of which has blocked Wespac's fishing plans.

Wespac proposals would:

■ Create a new fishery for precious corals, even though, as NOAA put it, Wespac knows little about the size, distribution, growth rates, and life history traits of precious corals in the area. Precious coral beds, however, are known to be important to the health of monk seals, and may be important to bottomfish. There has never been a precious coral fishery in the northwestern islands.

■ Create a new fishery for coral reef fish. NOAA, in rejecting the fishery, points out that past attempts to harvest coral reef species in the islands led to sudden collapses, requiring decades for even partial recoveries. “The available evidence supports the conclusion allowing commercial harvesting of coral reef species would likely result in a significant, adverse impact to the proposed sanctuary's ecosystem,” NOAA said.

■ Reopen the lobster fishery that was closed after the 1999 season because of uncertainty about the population and the risk that it had been overfished. “Almost 30 years of commercial crustacean fishing demonstrates that allowing it to resume would risk further deterioration of the health of these stocks and disruption to the health of the region's ecosystems,” NOAA said. It also noted the “likely importance of lobsters in the monk seal diet,” a statement that Wespac has always questioned.

■ Expand bottomfish based largely on economic considerations and not on ecosystem considerations for the northwestern islands. NOAA said Wespac's proposal does not put “limits or controls” on bottomfishing, with unknown ecological impacts.

Heads in the Sand

Samuel King, a federal judge in Hawai`i, likes to write little jokes into footnotes in his rulings, says Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, who litigated a monk seal lawsuit in King’s court. Once, in a 2000 ruling involving Wespac's lobster fishery and monk seals, he pointed out that ostriches don't really bury their heads in the sand:

“With all this talk of seals, fish, and lobsters, we break the monotony by tendering a fact about a terrestrial member of the animal kingdom. The legend that ostriches bury their heads when faced with danger is just that: a legend. The real story is that ostriches lie on the ground with their necks outstretched to avoid detection.”

At the time, lobsters were disappearing from the northwestern islands, as were the monk seals. Judge King said killing the lobsters should stop, at least for the time being until scientists can figure out whether monk seals are starving because the lobsters are gone.

Both NOAA Fisheries and Wespac contended at the time that they were not aware of any data that confirmed the lobster fishery was harming the monk seal. But King, noting that the absence of proof was not the same as absence of harm, railed at this “head-in-the-sand attitude we do not condone.” As the judge said, it's not the ostrich who can't tell what's going on.

Five years later, in December 2005, Wespac remains obsessed with opening the lobster fishery. The lobster population is still severely depleted, and the monk seals continue to starve. But the connection between starving monk seals and disappearing lobsters is not as murky as Wespac would have you believe. The lack of lobster in monk seal diets is a known problem.

On Dec. 20, Wespac was preparing to vote on a proposal to open or expand the four fisheries: lobster, precious coral, coral reef fish and bottomfish.

Wespac was applying a new, greensounding spin to its fishing plan. Members of the council were talking like tree huggers. From now on, they said, fisheries will be operated in tune with the entire ecosystem. Before, the ecosystem's health was not a major consideration when fishing rules were being made.

This shortcoming was not Wespac's alone. Until recently, none of the other regional fishery councils in the U.S. have been taking ecosystem effects into account.

The document has an attractive cover and a green label: “Fishery Ecosystem Plan.” But like the Wespac fishery plans that came before, the contents included the schemes that NOAA had rejected two months before.

One of the key features of ecosystem planning, as outlined by NOAA, is a focus on the relationship between predators and prey. But Wespac's ecosystem plan fails to address interactions between the highly endangered monk seal and an important prey species, lobster.

The new plan was little more than a cut and paste job. Wespac was simply regurgitating language from old, illegal fishing plans, stuffing them into the new volume, and calling it “Hawaiian science.”

So goes ecosystem planning in the western Pacific.

Wespac played a few other tricks on everybody. It said the new plan would apply to all federal waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. It added, however, that it could “expand these boundaries if and when supported by scientific data and/or management requirements.” Wespac didn't explain precisely where or why it wanted to expand its jurisdiction.

This proposal drew a pointed letter on December 2 from Peter Young, chair of Hawai`i's Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the state's designated representative on Wespac.

“To expand these boundaries beyond the EEZ (the U.S. exclusive economic zone) would mean including international waters, which is beyond the scope of Wespac's authority,” Young wrote in the letter, which was addressed to Simonds. “The only other possibility for expanding the boundary would be to include the waters managed by the state of Hawai`i.”

The state would surely oppose that, Young said in an interview.

The plan contained other errors. A proposed regulation for black coral fishing would violate a Wespac policy that was just two months old.

“Wespac can't even keep its own policies straight inside its own document,” said Dan Polhemus, director of Hawai`i's Division of Aquatic Resources.

Wespac was originally scheduled to take a final vote in March, but Executive Director Kitty Simonds moved it ahead to Dec. 20 with no explanation. The change came as a complete surprise to the state of Hawai`i. By speeding up the process, Wespac essentially prevented the state and the public from providing meaningful comment, Young said.

The state did not get a copy of the final plan until the 14th. Before then, it had seen only a draft that was missing two entire chapters and contained “numerous factual and typographical errors,” Young said in his letter to Simonds.

Wespac gave the state and the public almost no time to review the 1,200 pages of draft plans before public hearings began on the 12th. And it gave no one — not even Wespac council members — an opportunity to review the final plans at all. When the council voted on the 20th to approve the plans, they were still unfinished and incomplete.

On the last day of public hearings, Wespac provided a list of some of the errors which had been corrected in the plan. But Hawai`i officials said many more errors remained. People at some public hearings were reviewing different versions of documents than people at other hearings.

In an interview with Cascadia Times, Young said: “The state and the public should have an opportunity to see a completed final document before it is considered final. Mistakes could have been corrected if there was time. These documents are so important we have to make sure they are critically reviewed.

“There was an apparent urgency and yet no explanation as to why the urgency,” Young said.

The state urged Wespac to wait until it got things right. But Wespac Chairman Frank McCoy (of American Samoa) still demanded an immediate final decision on the 20th. “We're not putting in the socalled mistakes that everybody's calling mistakes,” he said. “It's basically misplaced words and that kind of stuff. I'm the chairman, I'm not ashamed to put this out.”

McCoy said he really didn't think there was such a rush. “We've had ample time to do this,” he said. “We voted on it a year ago, over a year ago, to start looking into this process. So, to say that we didn't have time to review this and review that, I'm not going to accept that.”

Stephanie Fried, of the conservation group Environmental Defense, said the public had been shut out of the process altogether. It was given no opportunity whatsoever to review a document that will be changed. “The process leading to this meeting is a textbook example of why a federal investigation of Wespac is fully warranted,” she said.

A Wespac member from Guam did not seem bothered by the sudden rush. “I'm sorry that people want to wait until March,” said Manuel Duenas. “But I can't wait until March because there'll be another meeting in June and then another meeting in October and that's too much, way too much to finish waiting for this thing to go.”

Rick Gaffney, a Hawai`i-based recreational fisher on Wespac, called the entire process “flawed.”

“I think we'll be a laughingstock in the public's eye and I just don't think it's appropriate,” he said. “No one has explained to me why there's a rush to complete these final actions. Why are we forcing the situation in two weeks? It just doesn't make sense to me.”

It wouldn't be until eight weeks later that the reason for the rush would be made clear.

On February 21 2006, Wespac published a document titled “Measures for Fishing Regulations in the Proposed NWHI Sanctuary” and announced that it had made a deal with NOAA regarding fishing in the proposed sanctuary. According to Wespac, NOAA had guaranteed “a high likelihood” that Wespac's new plans for fishing would be accepted for the proposed sanctuary as long as they included a temporary moratorium on the harvest of lobster, corals, and reef fish and caps on bottomfish and pelagic fishing. Wespac indicated that they had been told that they had until April 14 to submit the amended management plans and regulations to NOAA.

As always, Wespac declared its continuing resolve to allow the illegal fisheries as well as increase the number of active bottomfish permits, in violation of existing fishing caps put in place by the Executive Orders.

Paul Koberstein