The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Wespac) used federal funds to campaign to dismantle the largest protected area in U.S. jurisdiction, the 84 million acre Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) Coral Reef Reserve, according to Paul Koberstein, award-winning journalist at the Cascadia Times. Today Koberstein received the prestigious Oakes Award, presented by a distinguished panel of Pulitzer Prize and Emmy-winning journalists for his investigation of Wespac. Environmental Defense praises Koberstein's efforts and a continued push to protect the NWHI.
Koberstein's investigation highlights the political connections of Kitty Simonds, Wespac's sole Executive Director for the past 29 years. He also reports that two individuals, Jim Cook and Sean Martin, who have long held sway on Wespac not only own vessels caught poaching lobster in the NWHI, but as large-scale sellers of commercial fishing equipment have financially benefited from Wespac rule changes that maintain or increase fishing traffic.
"This scandal shows the pressing need for a thorough federal investigation of Wespac's activities and use of public funds," said Environmental Defense scientist Stephanie Fried. "It's critical that strong protections remain in place for the NWHI."
"The Northwestern Islands are a nursery for fisheries in the main Hawaiian Islands where thousands fish," said fisher Louis Agard, former head of the longliner Ahi Fishing Boat Association, bottomfish fisher and lobster trapper. "Protecting the distant islands as a public trust is necessary to rebuild fisheries in the main islands, to help local fishers who depend on them."
The NWHI Reserve was established in one of the greatest outpourings of public participation and support for a natural resource decision ever. Fishers, divers, Native Hawaiian leaders and scientists joined together, testifying at over 30 hearings in the last four years to protect this special place.
Yet Wespac recently launched its own type of "public hearings" in late January. Unlike the previous federal NWHI hearings, Wespac did not broadly inform the public in advance. It claimed to file a federal register announcement, but did not do so. Wespac sent out 6,000 advance mailings to a private list, but only ran public newspaper announcements a few days prior to the start of hearings. It also blanketed radio stations with ads falsely claiming that Native Hawaiians would lose their fishing rights. It made unauthorized use of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) logo and claimed NOAA co-sponsorship of their hearings — statements they were forced to retract at the hearings.
Over 100 citizens showed up at the Honolulu hearing where Wespac proposed NWHI coral harvesting, reef fishing, the re-opening of a crashed lobster fishery and the expansion of bottomfishing in feeding grounds of the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal. At the hearing, Wespac repeatedly misled the audience, claiming that the NWHI were "not supplying" bottomfish to the main islands, despite years of their own published reports showing otherwise.
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