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OP-ED: Contrary to Civil Beat claims, Wespac is effective and transparent

In a series of recent articles and an editorial, the Honolulu Civil Beat made several allegations against the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, creating a false impression that Council members and staff operate with “limited oversight” and violate federal law. The Civil Beat called for an investigation into Council operations to address these purported issues.

These claims of impropriety are baseless and ignore the myriad laws, regulations, and policies that Council members and staff follow to properly implement the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), our nation’s primary fisheries law, and related statutes.

This is not the first time the Council has come under attack from the Civil Beat or special interest groups for carrying out the requirements of the MSA. Similar criticisms resulted in a formal Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of the Council from 2008 to 2009—an investigation that included multiple GAO auditors working for weeks in the Council office. The GAO’s final report vindicated the Council against allegations of improper lobbying, conflicts of interest, the use of and accounting for federal funds, and council operations. It also provided some recommendations to improve transparency, which the Council has incorporated.

Criticisms are a fact of life for the Council as it implements the MSA. Fishery management in Hawaii is a controversial subject. The Council, and the scientists it employs, must analyze complex scientific issues and make tough management recommendations to protect and utilize marine resources. This is a difficult task, particularly given the vast area within the Council’s jurisdiction and the many stakeholders with different interests in our fishery resources.

What these articles and the routine criticism by special interest groups overlook is the many successes the Council has had in balancing the complexities of environmental stewardship and commercial use, which are both recognized as important considerations by the MSA. The Council’s mission is to ensure fisheries are managed at optimum yield, consistent with the conservation needs of fish stocks and protected species. To that end, the Council is doing its job and doing it well.

The Civil Beat series focused especially on projects funded by the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund (WPSFF)—the process of which is not a secret, as the series implied. These projects are based on Marine Conservation Plans (MCPs) developed by the governors of American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Each step of developing, approving, and funding MCP projects undergoes a public and transparent process.

The Council reviews the draft MCPs and then the respective governor submits the draft to regional NOAA officials for the Commerce Secretary’s approval. NOAA provides notice of the approval decision in the Federal Register. Up through the end of the grant performance period, typically one to three years, NOAA administers and is responsible for the grant. The Council administers and is responsible for the sub-awards.

The Council annually proposes longline-caught bigeye tuna catch and allocation limits for the Territories, based on analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and MSA. These proposed limits undergo public review and comment, among other steps, before a decision is made that allows Territories to allocate a portion of their quota to federally permitted Hawaii longline vessels. Rules govern how the funds from these agreements are deposited into the WPSFF to support fisheries projects identified in the approved MCPs.

Gov. Ralph Torres, CNMI-R, in October 2018 received a sub-award of $250,000 to fund a fisheries training and demonstration program. “We have a really good fishing industry here, but we need a lot of technical assistance for our fisheries and our fishermen on how to fish properly commercially, how to protect and preserve the fish and how to market the fish,” he said. “We’ve been collaborating with Wespac for many years, and I am very pleased to see this project moving forward. I believe that this will help with other fishing initiatives throughout the region. We are all very excited about this project and look ahead at sustainable fishery resources and training for the benefit of our community,” Gov. Torres added.

The Civil Beat implied that some MCP projects funded by the WPSFF were selected to benefit specific Council members. Here are the facts:

• John Gourley was not a Council member at the time that his company, Micronesian Environmental Services, received a contract. Additionally, one of the identified grants came from the competitive Saltonstall-Kennedy grant program, not through the WPSFF.

• Dean Sensui was not a Council member when he received funding to develop a new technique he had conceptualized for observing fish underwater without human interference and to test it in a project that compared Western science and traditional knowledge around a ko‘a (natural fish aggregation site).

• In American Samoa, Malaloa was identified as the best spot for longline dock expansion in January 2015, nearly two years before Christinna Lutu-Sanchez, one of several longline vessel owners in American Samoa, and I became Council members.

• The Guam Organization of Saltwater Anglers and Tom Camacho, not Manny Duenas, pursued the Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant fishing platform in Hagatna, a project strongly endorsed by Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo, and dedicated funds from a grant they received to pay a portion of the initial development and construction. Duenas, president of the Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association, did not benefit from the fishing platform that helps people catch fish for themselves.

• Mirae Info Design was contracted to work on fishery data collection systems in the region. The fact that the proprietor’s spouse is a NOAA employee is not a conflict of interest as he had no decision-making authority over the contract. Legitimate concerns over potential conflicts of interest should be raised with the Department of Commerce’s General Counsel, Ethics and Law Division.

The Civil Beat stated that the Council is “mucking around in what is clearly state policy,” citing the Puwalu (conference) involving Native Hawaiians concerned with traditional and customary fishing practices. The Council frequently works with community organizations to increase understanding of the region’s fisheries and support the MSA’s public engagement goals. The Puwalu had grassroots support, involving kupuna (elders) from every island, and was a joint undertaking by the Council and the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs. It was co-funded by Kamehameha Schools, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Office of State Planning, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

More about ecosystem-based fisheries management in the region and the Puwalu is available in books by Edward Glazier, published by Wiley-Blackwell (2011) and by Palgrave Macmillan (2019). Additional references include the Aha Moku article by Timothy Bailey in Fishing People of the North (Alaska Sea Grant 2012) and Conservation of Pacific Sea Turtles (University of Hawaii 2011).

The Civil Beat series questioned the Council’s involvement in bottomfish management around the main Hawaiian Islands. However, because the Council and Hawaii share management authority over stocks found in both federal and state waters, they routinely work together on a range of scientific and management issues. While the two don’t always agree on everything—for example, the Council continues to believe that Hawaii’s Bottomfish Restricted Fishing Areas lack a legitimate conservation purpose or scientific support, and needlessly place fishermen at risk by forcing them farther out to sea—both sides work cooperatively to resolve these occasional disagreements.

Contrary to what the Civil Beat implied, the Council operates openly and transparently. Council meetings are open to the public, which is given advance notice of meetings in the Federal Register and newspaper ads, among other means. Public comment is welcomed at these and other advisory body meetings. Council and NOAA actions are likewise subject to public review and comment.

Finally, the Council works closely with the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office and NOAA Office of General Counsel to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other information requests, including requests from the Civil Beat. These requests are addressed in the order received and often take substantial staff resources and time to process. Requests that are broad in scope (cover lengthy periods and/or across programs) will take much longer than requests that are narrowly focused. The Council will continue to respond to FOIA and other requests and encourages the public to review online resources, such as the Council’s website, for more information about the Council and its activities.

The Fishery Management Council system, which has supported sustainable U.S. fisheries for over 40 years, is meant to empower local stakeholders to get involved in federal fisheries management. The Council process helps ensure that management actions are based on sound science while providing a forum for community engagement and involvement. And while Council decisions will always generate some criticism, we will continue to do the hard work of protecting our nation’s resources while providing economic opportunities for our region.

Taotasi Archie Soliai of Pago Pago, American Samoa, serves as the chair of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. He is currently the human and government relations manager at StarKist Samoa and previously served as a member of the American Samoa House of Representatives (2007-2014). He has been a recreational fisherman for decades, and his primary fishery interest is sustainability.