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Office of National Marine Sanctuaries received 57,000 comments on proposed PRIA sanctuary

Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council logo
It is considering all information to develop a full range of alternatives

Honolulu, HAWAII — The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) updated Western Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) members on the process and timeline on decisions regarding the proposed Pacific Remote Islands (PRI) National Marine Sanctuary designation — noting the public comment period garnered approximately 57,000 comments. The topics discussed ranged from support to opposition of the proposed sanctuary with suggestions for regulations, boundaries, opportunities and improvements.

Brady Phillips, ONMS, said the Council’s input would be helpful to draft alternatives to balance the President’s directive to “provide lasting and comprehensive protection” with existing fishing rules and regulations. Phillips noted ONMS is considering all information received to develop a full range of alternatives for the proposed sanctuary.

“I think we need to be honest about what additional regulations would protect,” said University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn. “Nearshore coral reefs are already covered — the real threats aren’t coming from fishing, they are coming from climate change.”

Acting SSC Chair Erik Franklin noted that on the mainland United States, sanctuaries are viewed as multi-use zones, including fishing, and questioned the difference in the Pacific Islands Region.

“Fishing is the lifeblood of our heritage in the Pacific Islands — it feels like government overreach to try to meet the global need to close ocean areas to achieve certain targets without thinking of the potential impacts,” said Franklin. “If we really want to meet ONMS’ goal of conserving cultural heritage, we need to include fishing as a critical component.”

The SSC reviewed existing fishing rules and regulations in the Council PRI Fishery Ecosystem Plan to evaluate if additional regulations were necessary to meet the proposed sanctuary’s goals and objectives. Members agreed that the regulations in place are sufficient and essentially best practices for fisheries in the Pacific.

Historically, the combined Hawai‘i- and American Samoa-based longline commercial catches ranged from 149 to 1,404 metric tons per year in the U.S. EEZ of the PRI, and the U.S. purse seine fleet catches ranged from 642 to 37,480 mt per year. From 2015 to present, following the PRI Marine National Monument establishment and subsequent expansion, the two longline fleets caught a combined total of 125 mt, and the purse seine fleet’s landings have ranged from 1,524 to 5,889 mt annually.

The Hawai‘i deep-set longline fleet delivers to the Port of Honolulu, but 85% of the purse seine fleet’s catch in the PRI is landed in American Samoa. Up to 80% of the fish supplied to the StarKist cannery is from U.S. fleets.

Tuna landings for the two commercial fleets for the past decade have had a negligible impact on the bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean at 3.6%, 0.8% and 0.2% of maximum sustainable yield, respectively. The fisheries have no impact on benthic habitats or seamounts due to the deep waters, and low interactions with protected species like sea turtles and oceanic whitetip sharks.

The Council will provide a response to ONMS regarding the need for draft fishing regulations by Dec. 20, 2023. After the scoping phase concludes, ONMS will develop proposed sanctuary designation documents, including a draft Environmental Impact Statement and management plan, around the end of 2023 and into 2024.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa.