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Protect Our Oceans: from the ground in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Carlotta Leon Guerrero is a former Member of the 23rd, 24th, and 25th Guam Senate. She was also a two-term president of the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures and previously worked as a radio and television journalist in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.


In April 2017, President Donald Trump ordered Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to examine 27 protected areas established by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama using the 1906 Antiquities Act.  Included in the list were four marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, Mariana Trench Marine National Monument in the Mariana Islands, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument in American Samoa, and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (sometimes referred to as Pacific Remote Island Areas or PRIA), which is made up several isolated islands and atolls under American control.  This should have all of us on Guam and in the Pacific concerned, because we are the people who will have to live with the outcome.

During a two month public comment period, 2.7 million Americans submitted testimony.  An analysis of a random sampling of the comments found that 99% were in support of maintaining protections for the marine monuments.

Secretary Zinke submitted his draft report to the White House in August, the details of which are being withheld from public scrutiny.  A press release timed with the submission of the report stated that no monuments would be overturned, but media stories claim the report contains recommendations that as many as six of the protected areas will have their borders reduced.  There is no word from the White House on when the report will be released to the public, or when and if the President will act on Zinke’s recommendations.

While there has been no public indication on what the White House will do, Zinke’s statement in the press release is worrisome.  “No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object,” Zinke said in the statement. “The recommendations I sent to the president on national monuments will maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations, and also provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation.”

The conservation community is concerned that Trump will attempt to overturn the protections of the marine monuments, while leaving the borders intact.  The existing marine monuments already allow some level of recreational, subsistence, and cultural traditional fishing, and there are fears that “economic development” is a reference to industrial commercial fishing like the longline fishing vessels based in Honolulu that have been found to have “slave like conditions.”

Chairman of the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument Ignacio V. Cabrera, an indigenous fisherman from Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, wrote in a recent editorial, “While it’s great that President Trump isn’t likely to overturn our Marina Trench Monument, opening the area for any kind of extraction, especially industrial scale commercial fishing, is equally as bad.”

There is additional concern that the entire marine monument review has everything to do with opening up protected American waters to fishing so that they can be sold off to foreign businesses.

Recently approved Fisheries Management Plans (FMP) for the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the Pacific Remote Islands were published in the Federal Register in August 2017.  The FMPs would allow the federal government to enter into agreements to sell access to American waters to foreign fishing vessels.

The Federal Register notices for Northern Mariana Islands and Guam read, “Section 204(e) of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) authorizes the Secretary of State, with the concurrence of the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary), and in consultation with the Council, to negotiate and enter into a Pacific Insular Area fishery agreement (PIAFA). A PIAFA would allow foreign fishing within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) adjacent to American Samoa, Guam, or the Northern Mariana Islands.”  The Federal Register for the Pacific Remote Islands extends the possible fishing areas to Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Palmyra Atoll.

There is a long history of conflict between industrial commercial fisheries and local fishermen in the American Pacific.  The 50nm zone around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the main Hawaiian Islands and Guam were closed to longline fishing in 1991 and 1992, respectively, because of the destructive nature of longline fishing and the effect this was having on the catches of local fishermen.  Fisheries managers have known for 25 years that longline fishing damages fragile ecosystems.  Opening up these protected areas to industrial fishing would set conservation efforts back nearly three decades.

As another example, the 50nm zone around American Samoa was closed to longline fishing in 2002.  This decision was made for similar reasons to the previous closures in Hawaii and Guam, to allow space for the traditional fleet of “alia” vessels to fish without competition from the much larger industrial scale vessels.  In 2016, at the recommendation of the controversial Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council (WESPAC), the federal government reduced the exclusion zone to 12 miles.  American Samoa sued the federal government saying the move violated their customary practices – and won.  By the way, it is worth pointing out the WESPAC is also the driving force behind the effort to open the marine monuments.

The majority of the American citizens living in the U.S. Pacific territories do not want to compete with industrial fishing that mostly export fish overseas, they want to see fish remaining in their waters for their benefit and use.  The move to open the marine monuments to commercial fishing and the drive to sell American waters to foreign businesses is something that will benefit a few people to the detriment of everyone else.