Council to consider fishing rules in marine monument

Sep. 19—Possible changes to fishing regulations within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument could allow cultural fishing practices, although such changes are also viewed as "harmful " to Native Hawaiian traditions.

Possible changes to fishing regulations within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument could allow cultural fishing practices, although such changes are also viewed as "harmful " to Native Hawaiian traditions.

This week the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or Wespac, in its, will consider options in a list of alternative commercial and noncommercial fishing regulations in the monument.

The Papahanaumokuakea monument, located around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is one of the largest fully protected conservation areas in the world, covering around 580, 000 square miles of ocean.

There has been no fishing activity in the monument since former President Barack Obama established a "monument expansion area (MEA )" in 2016 that prohibited commercial fishing. Noncommercial fishing is allowed, but there isn't a permitting process in place to give fishers entry into those waters to fish.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has since initiated a process to consider designating the monument as a national marine sanctuary, and Wespac was given an opportunity to draft fishing regulations for it.

Most of the alternative regulations under consideration would codify the MEA boundaries and ban commercial fishing, so much of the discussion about them has revolved around the establishment of a permitting and reporting system for various noncommercial activities, including fishing for cultural, recreational and research purposes.

The goal of many of the alternative regulations is to encourage sustainable, noncommercial fishing, such as subsistence fishing by Native Hawaiians.

But Wespac and other stakeholders have been wrestling with the possible inclusion of the controversial "customary exchange, " which some see as a possible loophole in the current ban on the trading or bartering—as they are considered commercial activity—of caught fish and problematic when it comes to cultural practices.

Fish caught in the MEA could be brought back home and, according to a federal definition of customary exchange, shared "between fishers and community residents for goods, services, and /or social support for cultural, social, or religious reasons."

Customary exchange also means that monetary reimbursements for fishing trip expenses to monument waters could be available to fishers.

The Papahanaumokuakea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, which consists of Native Hawaiians with connections and historical ties to the monument, said in written testimony that customary exchange is "harmful and incompatible with the known traditions specific to this region—an area customarily deemed kapu or off-limits to fishing other than for the traditional practice of harpooning ulua or giant trevally from shore to be dried and shared with the aboriginal communities on Ni 'ihau and Kaua 'i."

The working group said customary exchange would allow any Hawaii resident to travel to the region despite its spiritual significance. It said that historically, traveling to the area was not motivated by the need to bring food back home.

The group also opposed the idea of reimbursing those fishing trips, as it would still be considered a financial transaction, "allowing for potential, unscrupulous exploitation."

The Scientific and Statistical Committee, one of several advisory bodies to Wespac, met last week in the most recent discussion of subsistence fishing and customary exchange.

Wespac staffer Joshua DeMello, in a presentation during the committee meeting, noted that the MEA is "not easily accessible " for fishers. Kauai is the nearest point to the monument but is still about 200 miles away ; Oahu is about 300 miles away.

The cost for a five-day fishing trip to the MEA, which includes fuel, food, ice and bait, would be about $3, 000, he said.

"The issue there is that without cost recovery, and given the expense and distance involved, would anybody ever go ?" Craig Severance, an SSC member and retired anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said during the meeting.

The SSC itself did not recommend any of the fishing alternatives, but has recommended that Wespac consider the definition of subsistence fishing and whether to include customary exchange.

The Non-Commercial Fishery Advisory Committee, another Wespac advisory group, has shown support for allowing noncommercial fishing and Native Hawaiian subsistence fishing with the ability for cost recovery ; the Advisory Panel recommended that Wespac "maximizes fishing opportunities and reiterates the need to ensure that fisheries research is able to continue in the MEA."

A preliminary decision will be made this week by the council, which makes recommendations to the U.S. government dealing with federal waters in the Pacific Ocean. It will decide on a final recommendation in a December meeting.