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DOI concerned 'customary exchange' could cross the line into commercial fishing

The U.S. National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) has been asked by the U.S. Department of Interior to put in place additional safeguards on “customary exchange” provisions of a proposed rule making which deals with fishing in the Mariana Trench, Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll national monuments.


DOI’s request, outlined in a letter last week, was made prior to the Apr. 8 closing period to provide comments regarding several proposed rules on fishing in these three monuments that were established through presidential proclamations.


Eileen Sobeck made DOI’s comments in her capacity as deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. She is also the acting assistant secretary for the Insular Affairs.


DOI said provisions that have been proposed include prohibition on commercial fishing in the three monuments as required by the Presidential Proclamations.  In the Marianas Trench and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments, however, fish harvested under a noncommercial fishing permit may be exchanged for cash in an amount not to exceed actual trip expenses.


“We are concerned the proposed rule may not contain adequate safeguards to ensure that this form of ‘customary exchange’ would not cross the line into commercial fishing which is proscribed by the respective proclamations,” said Sobeck.


“Law enforcement officers could be challenged in their enforcement of the ban on commercial fishing,” she said, adding that officers could lack sufficient information to determine, when cash reimbursements exceed actual trip expenses or that buyers are family or friends of residents of local fishing communities.”


“While requirements for reporting such catch would be the primary means available for both ensuring that the catch is at a sustainable level and for providing data which may indicate that the level of catch is indicative of commercial operations, we recommend that the final rule contain one or more additional directions to ensure enforcement of the ban on commercial fishing,” she said.


Among such additional directions:


•            Limit customary exchange to fishing practices that were part of the cultural, social, or religious tradition of local communities at the time the proclamations were issued, consistent with the proclamations’ allowance for “traditional indigenous fishing.”


•            Establish bag limits for noncommercial fishing.


•            Cap the amount of cash that can be received through customary exchange.


•            Require fishers to report fishing trip expenses and cash sales.


•            Include a definition of “Community Residents” for implementation of customary exchange.


“Such measures would more closely align the regulations with the proclamations’ directions to prohibit commercial fishing in the Monuments,” said Sobeck, who also commented and offers DOI suggestions to other provisions of the proposed rule.


There were also a handful of non-profit U.S. based groups who called for more stringent measures to be implemented to further safe guard, “customary exchange” ensuring that it does not become commercial fishing.


Dr. Craig Severabce, a professor with the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, said in his comments, “Customary exchange fishing for cultural and ceremonial needs continues to be an important motive for initiating fishing trips and for sharing catches widely among the indigenous people of the Northern Marianas and American Samoa, especially Manu'a.”


He also says that customary exchange is a valid anthropological term for a long term and on going cultural practice.


“It is difficult for westerners with their images and concepts of ‘commercial fishing’ as large scale profit making business to understand that customary exchange has a different motive and outcome,” he said.


He also said that the distances involved and fuel costs will limit all fishing in the monuments and will be monitored to ensure sustainability of the fishery and should be accepted in a way that provides for sustainability of deeply rooted cultural practices.


All documents, comments and response pertaining to the NMFS’ proposed rule making on the Monuments are available on the federal government portal: