By Rick Gaffney
Rick Gaffney is a former WESPAC council member, President of the Hawai‘i Fishing and Boating Association, and a Hawai‘i Island resident.
One day in the late 1990s off Midway Island, a tornado-like cloud of thousands of seabirds of a dozen species spiraled upward into the clear blue sky. Underneath them in the cerulean blue water, there were simply fish everywhere: multiple species devouring shoals of baitfish, fish hitting all of our lines at the same time, again and again. It was an epic example of pelagic abundance.
I’ve done a lot of fishing in the Pacific Ocean, and the waters of the northwest Hawaiian islands–now Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument—delivered some of the most extraordinary days in my career as a fishing professional.
For that reason I was pleased when the monument was established by presidential proclamation in 2006; the area is unlike any other place on the planet, and it deserved the protection. The monument was expanded a decade later with the support of hundreds of thousands of people, from Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners to local small-boat fishermen. The monument protections restrict harmful human activities like deep-sea mining and industrial longline fishing. Those monument protections are strong—but two years ago, when President Trump revoked protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in New England, the NWHI Reserve Advisory Council (RAC)–a community-based advisory group on which I serve—recognized that we needed an additional layer of protection for Papahānaumokuākea in order to thwart any future attempts to diminish protections. The RAC re-initiated the process for adding an overlay of protections via a national marine sanctuary. A sanctuary designation, authorized by the Secretary of Commerce, can’t be withdrawn or limited by a presidential executive order.
However, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or WESPAC, is twisting the public input phase of the marine sanctuary designation process in its relentless, ill-conceived efforts to open this spectacular protected area to fishing. This is entirely counterintuitive—and the science doesn’t back it up.
A recent study published in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Science, by University of Hawai‘i scientists showed an increase in fish caught in the areas outside the Papahānaumokuākea boundary—a phenomena called the spillover effect, where fish, able to reproduce and grow unmolested within the protected boundaries of the monument “spill over” into unprotected adjacent areas where they can be fished. The study reported that catches of ahi in waters around the monument rose by 54% from 2016 to 2019.
This isn’t the first time researchers have confirmed the spillover benefit of marine protected areas. That science has nearly 40 years of extensive publications backing it up.
But WESPAC doesn’t care about decades of international science. It’s following their narrow goal to allow fishing wherever they want and to catch as much as they want—but this course of action would only result in a short-term, unsustainable gain for the industry—and for the ecosystem as a whole.
The ocean needs more protection in order to maintain healthy fish populations, not less. Although the waters around the northwest Hawaiian islands are spectacularly productive, they aren’t immune to the impacts of climate change, like ocean acidification and rising temperatures. We know that marine protected areas like monuments and sanctuaries are one of the best tools to buffer biological communities against climate change. And we know that a healthy ocean, in turn, provides jobs, income, and sustainable seafood for our communities.
It’s simple: to have a healthy ocean, we must leave areas for fish to grow and reproduce without the threat of unsustainable fishing practices. I’ve seen the beauty of Papahānaumokuākea first-hand. Let’s continue to steer in the right direction by keeping the existing protections in place.