Vessel-based threats continue to damage Pacific marine national monuments
In response to illegal incursions and fishing in America’s Pacific national marine monuments, the Marine Conservation Institute last week released a study that recommends ways to help federal law enforcement agencies combat threats to one of America’s last relatively unspoiled frontiers.
The Institute said in a news release that fishermen and recreational sailors have already damaged coral reefs and other marine wildlife by vessel groundings and spills and by introducing invasive species on island wildlife refuges that constitute the heart of the monuments.
The monuments — Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments — were established by a 2009 presidential order.
The 56-page report states that a synthesis of government documents, personal interviews with federal enforcement staff, and information from international fishery management organizations show that vessel-based threats continue to manifest themselves inside Pacific marine national monuments.
Among the examples cited in the report is that since the January 2009 presidential order, “there have been low but consistent levels of illegal fishing by US-registered vessels inside the boundaries of Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands MNMs.
Historically, commercial fishing vessels have posed the greatest threat of accidental groundings and spills; in the last 25 years there have been groundings on Rose Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef, all of which caused significant and lingering damage, according to another example cited in the report.
The report also states that since January 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has noted several instances of illegal fishing in the monument by domestic vessels, notably at Rose Atoll MNM and in the Johnston and Kingman/ Palmyra areas of the Pacific Islands MNMs.
The report provides data on fishing activity on Rose Atoll.
According to NOAA officers, monument violations were initially high during the months immediately following the issuance of the proclamations, but decreased after NOAA agents issued warnings to vessel captains suspected of illegally activity, the report says.
More recently, illegal fishing activity has slowly increased, with an average of 1-2 instances of suspected illegal activity in the Pacific monuments per quarter. Presumably, this increase is because vessel owners have realized that there are no official penalties being handed out in the absence of monument fishing regulations.
According to the report, recreational vessels have been seen at Rose Atoll by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff during past research cruises, “but again, the lack of regular monitoring of Rose means it is difficult to know how frequent such visits are.”
“Rose is closed to public access but appears to be a popular anchoring spot for sailing vessels based on anecdotal information,” it says.
To combat illegal encroachment into these internationally recognized conservation areas, the Institute recommended, among other things, to establish long overdue fishery regulations that implement the 2009 presidential prohibition on commercial fishing in the monuments; and increase surveillance and enforcement funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Coast Guard and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agencies responsible for law enforcement in the monuments.
“The protective shield for our Pacific ocean gems must be strengthened to deter and punish illegal activity,” said Lance Morgan, the Institute’s president and CEO in a news release. “While US enforcement is doing its best with limited resources, there are still many gaps and areas for improvement.”
Responding to the Institute report, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana congressional member Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan called on Congress and federal agencies to dedicate more attention and resources to curtailing illegal activity in U.S. Pacific waters.
“Our inability to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is having a dramatic effect on the health of Pacific marine ecosystems and the island economies that depend on them,” said Sablan, in a news release. “We don’t even have a way to know who is in our exclusive economic zones, much less a way to do anything about it.”
“We in Congress need to step up with additional funding,” Sablan said. “And the responsible agencies need to do more to work collaboratively to maximize the effectiveness of the resources that Congress provides.”
The Institute’s full report is found on: www.marine-conservation.org