Fight against Marine Monuments all about protecting fishing industry
Honolulu, HAWAII — Since 2006, Kitty Simonds has used her position and the resources available to her as executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council to organize and facilitate a fierce resistance to the establishment or expansion of marine monuments.
While the monuments are aimed at protecting a number of fish and wildlife species, Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry says being shut out of large areas is affecting its ability to make a living.
Simonds and Wespac leaders have routinely opposed proposals to set aside large swaths of the Pacific in the name of conservation, whether it was when Republican President George W. Bush used his executive authority to create monuments or when Democratic President Barack Obama greatly expanded two of those. In 2016, an executive action by Obama made Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument the world’s largest protected area at the time.
But a Civil Beat review of Wespac records, emails and other material shows that Simonds and council leaders have employed a number of different strategies to oppose the environmental protections even though federal rules generally prohibit the use of taxpayer money to lobby for or against federal policy.
A 2009 federal audit of Wespac stopped short of finding legal violations but made clear that when it comes to Congress the council is only allowed to provide technical and factual information and only when asked. The council has more flexibility to advocate when it comes to the president or the administration.
Still, Simonds has continued to work against federal environmental policy and the opposition to Papahanaumokuakea is arguably Wespac’s most visible campaign in recent years.
In 2016 Simonds sent several letters to Obama and high-ranking officials trying to convince them to stop the expansion of the marine protected area.
She worked behind the scenes to drum up public opposition, leaning on her connections with former governors and the fishing industry. And she supported a Wespac contractor’s bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a supporter of the monument expansion, when he ran for reelection in 2016.
Environmental groups complained that her actions amounted to improper lobbying to influence a presidential decision. But federal officials declined to launch a formal investigation in part because of the gray area around lobbying a president.
Five years later, Simonds and the council are still angling for ways to reopen Papahanaumokuakea to commercial fishing and regain control over how those 583,000 square miles of ocean are managed.
In September, Wespac formed a special committee to analyze the science behind the expansion area and the effect it has had on the handful of commercial fishermen who targeted tuna and swordfish there. Before Bush created it in 2006, it was also a fairly lucrative bottomfish area and commercial lobster fishery until the stocks plummeted.
Members of the council and the scientific committee that advises Wespac say there are conflicting studies — one shows no effect from the monument and one found a multimillion-dollar impact. But Wespac is concerned that the study showing no impact is biased because it was paid for by a nonprofit that supports marine monuments.
Citing Wespac’s conduct in particular, members of Congress recently introduced legislation that would place new restrictions on lobbying the executive branch.
A HISTORY OF OPPOSITION
Stephanie Fried, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, has described Wespac’s opposition to federal efforts to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as tobacco industry-type campaigns, and that it boils down to the council’s fear of losing its power.
Simonds first opposed Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument when President George W. Bush created it in 2006 and fought his designations of the Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll and the Mariana Trench monuments in 2009. She has said that bottomfishing in particular around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands should have been allowed to continue.
She pushed back again in 2014 with Obama’s expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands, and had some success after Wespac sent a delegation to D.C. to meet with John Podesta, who was the acting head of the Council on Environmental Quality and counselor to the president.
Simonds insisted on meeting in person after the White House solicited comment. She spent $33,000 in taxpayer money to send staff there plus $1,000 for some glossy brochures that backed their arguments against the monument, according to an Environment Hawaii story.
In a Wespac release about the meeting, Simonds described the monument restrictions as unnecessary. “Our current management systems are a global guide and a living legacy for responsible resource management. Our regulations are the strictest in the world,” she said.
The trip paid off. The Obama administration had initially planned to expand the monument to 200 miles around seven groups of remote Pacific islands and atolls. That was reduced to three islands: Johnston, Jarvis and Wake. Obama kept the monument’s existing 50-mile boundary around Kingman reef, Palmyra atoll, and Howland and Baker islands.
In a release, Simonds called it a “compromise” that prevented devastating consequences for the region’s fisheries and communities.
Wespac “spent the summer trying to convince Obama not to expand the PRIA monument,” she told the council at its next meeting. “We were partially successful,” she said, as reported by Environment Hawaii.
Two years later, the battle to prevent the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea began in earnest.
“We’re on several tracks,” Simonds wrote in a July 2016 email to 10 people, including Wespac staff and the family members of a former Hawaii governor and United States senator.
Her to-do list included sending a “letter to prez,” meeting with Gov. David Ige, who had yet to weigh in on the matter, and holding an anti-monument press conference with former governors and state legislators at the Capitol.
Simonds sent several letters to Obama and other officials about the monument, which she described as a “paper park” that was really about presidential legacies and giveaways to environmentalists, according to records Civil Beat obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Dismayed that Schatz had rebuffed her repeated requests to meet, she asked him in a letter what “protecting” those waters meant beyond “further layers of federal bureaucracy.”
Rallies organized by Simonds to oppose the expansion drew large crowds.
In July 2016 Simonds watched from the sidelines during a large rally at the pier in Honolulu where Hawaii’s longline fleet of roughly 140 vessels unloads upwards of $100 million in premium tuna and swordfish each year.
The crowd included numerous people wearing shirts sporting the logo of the nearby fishing and marine supply store, Pacific Ocean Producers. The business is owned by Sean Martin and Jim Cook, who also own a fleet of longline vessels and have served multiple terms on Wespac, including stints as chair.
Two weeks later, state lawmakers who’d signed a resolution opposing the expansion gathered for a solidarity rally at the State Capitol. Former Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi, whose son Donn was on Wespac’s email list, and former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, whose daughter Millannie was copied on correspondence from Wespac, addressed the crowd.
Internal Wespac emails show Simonds helped develop a database of people and organizations who could be counted on to oppose the monument. She identified potential support using an existing database of people who had participated in the state’s aha moku system of natural resource management, a group that Wespac helped form and fund over the prior decade.
Among the aha moku names was Makani Christensen, a periodic Wespac contractor whom the council had paid to fly to the Big Island and Maui in 2013 and 2014 for meetings and events as the aha moku program struggled to take root.
He ran for U.S. Senate against Schatz in the 2016 Democratic primary that August. Simonds donated $1,500 to his campaign — her single biggest campaign contribution ever. Others connected to Wespac pitched in too, campaign finance reports show.
Christensen, an Oahu-based tour operator and fisherman, strongly opposed the monument, and he used his campaign platform to amplify that position on his website and in speeches. Few expected him to even have a chance at winning — he lost after securing just 6% of the vote — but the race gave him a soapbox.
“This comes down to a legacy project that benefits a couple guys,” Christensen said about the monument during a special presentation of the community TV show ThinkTech Hawaii.
Instead of the show’s regular host, the episode was hosted by Dean Sensui, who had donated to Christensen’s campaign and had worked with him on Wespac-funded fishing studies. Sensui had been appointed that June to a three-year seat on the council.
Simonds also rallied her counterparts in the seven other regional fishery councils around the country to write a joint letter against the monument, records show. Wespac member McGrew Rice, a Big Island charter boat fisherman, joined her at a meeting of the leaders of the eight councils in Washington, D.C., to speak against the monuments.
“If this happens, you will lose at least half of that fleet, and it may destroy the whole thing, and so it’s really something for all of us to think about, because you’re next,” Rice told the group.
Simonds’ intense activity both in Hawaii and in the nation’s capital prompted the Conservation Council for Hawaii to file a formal complaint with federal investigators over what the group viewed as improper lobbying by Simonds.
The late Marjorie Ziegler, who led the group at the time of the complaint in 2016, said the leadership and advice Simonds provided the opposition campaign was inappropriate and her lobbying activities appeared to violate specific guidance on the use of federal funds.
Nothing came of her complaint to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s general counsel.
And Wespac said at the time that Simonds’ actions were consistent with federal financial requirements and its Magnuson-Stevens Act mandates. The council insisted that its actions regarding the monument expansion were in response to letters from private citizens and a senator — not legislation.
After a tumultuous six months in 2016, Obama signed the proclamation to expand Papahanaumokuakea. Simonds vowed to support it despite her opposition.
Little if any harm came to Hawaii’s longline industry. The fleet remained at about the same number of boats and the fishermen had no trouble catching their 3,500-ton quota for the industry’s prized bigeye tuna. In fact, year after year, they reached their quota early.
Then in 2017, a new window opened to roll back the monument. Republican President Donald Trump took office with a pro-business platform and a publicly stated disdain for monuments on land or at sea.
Read part II in an upcoming Samoa News issue this week or at Honolulu Civil Beat [www.civilbeat.org].