The protections that President Clinton mandated for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the waning days of his presidency may not stand as the region is converted into a national marine sanctuary, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said yesterday.
Clintons rules for
NW islands could weaken
Environmentalists vow to fight
attempts to allow more fishing
By Rita Beamish
"It certainly could change," Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr., said in an interview about prospects for the 1,200-mile swath of water, islands, atolls and shoals.
While environmentalists and some government officials interpreted Clinton's executive order as setting a floor for environmental protection when he designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, Lautenbacher said that other concerns, including the livelihood of commercial fishermen, will be considered as NOAA conducts the process of creating a national marine sanctuary.
"The executive order isn't necessarily going to be the final rule system for the national marine sanctuary," Lautenbacher said. "I can't predetermine what that would end up being."
The issue of how the marine sanctuary would take shape has been a contentious one since Clinton in two executive orders created the reserve as a first step, and also mandated the beginning of the process to establish a marine sanctuary that would "supplement or complement the existing Reserve." That process will take two or three years.
In a novel step, he laid out a management regime for the reserve, including specific reef areas where fishing and other activities would be restricted, and even set forth catch limits based on the fishermen's previous five years' landings.
Lautenbacher said that discussions now ongoing could potentially change those protected reef areas, which bottom fishermen have complained are some of their best fishing spots.
The National Marine Fisheries Service allows 17 permits for commercial bottom fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but only nine permit holders are currently active.
"Everything is open for discussion," Lautenbacher said regarding the ongoing public comment and discussion process for the marine sanctuary.
Stephanie Fried, senior scientist for Environmental Defense Hawaii, expressed dismay when told of Lautenbacher's comments and accused the administration of "flip-flopping" after recently announcing that Bush would not overturn Clinton's order.
"If the marine sanctuary is going to represent a Trojan horse for undoing these popularly supported protections, then the Department of Commerce is going to have a big fight on its hands," she said.
Lautenbacher indicated that he sees Clinton's management rules as governing the reserve, but they may not apply once it is converted to an official marine sanctuary.
The sanctuary could end up being more or less restrictive than Clinton laid out, depending on science and public interest, he said.
Reopening the lobster fishery and prospecting for precious corals, both foreclosed by Clinton's order, also are on the table, he said.
"People are really locked in to the executive order and they are worried that if anything will change, that it's undermining the cause. I don't look at it that way," he said.
On the other hand, he said the executive order wouldn't be completely discarded. Because it contained "at least some framework" based on scientific assessment at the time.
He highlighted the importance of coral reefs as "the birthplace of life in the ocean" that need to be managed "in a sustainable way."
He also noted that the Western Pacific Regional Pacific Management Council, which oversees fishing policy in the region, has its own draft management plan for the coral reefs around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
It contains a less restrictive regimen for fishermen than Clinton's order.
While the Commerce Department has decreed that Clinton's executive order trumps any conflicting decisions by the fishery council regarding the current reserve, that scenario "wouldn't necessarily be true for the sanctuary," depending on NOAA's ultimate management plan, he said.
"Part of the National Marine Sanctuary process is that the fishery management council out here has an opportunity to deal with the rules that apply within that sanctuary. So by trying to expedite the national marine sanctuary process we're giving a voice to those interests with a very definite concern in the outcome of the process. That's a critical element," he said.
The Commerce Department, which includes NOAA, wants to get beyond the reserve, which Lautenbacher noted is a "one of a kind system" and move on to a normal marine sanctuary as soon as possible, he said.
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