Tighter Law Enforcement in Pacific Marine Monuments

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In response to illegal incursions and fishing in America’s Pacific marine monuments, the Marine Conservation Institute today released a study that recommends ways to help law enforcement agencies combat threats to one of America’s last relatively unspoiled frontiers. Fishermen and recreational sailors have already damaged coral reefs and other marine wildlife by vessel groundings and spills and by introducing invasive species on island wildlife refuges that constitute the heart of the monuments.

To combat illegal encroachment into these internationally recognized conservation areas, Marine Conservation Institute recommends several steps:

  • Establish long overdue fishery regulations that implement the 2009 presidential prohibition on commercial fishing in the Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments;
  • Increase surveillance and enforcement funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Coast Guard and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agencies responsible for law enforcement in the monuments;
  • Improve outreach to commercial and recreational vessel owners to eliminate confusion and unintended violations, and make monument and wildlife refuge boundaries clear on all nautical charts;
  • and Implement innovative methods of surveillance that enable law enforcement agencies to better patrol the monuments and sanctuaries, including engaging law-abiding US fishermen who witness illegal activity.

“Our Pacific marine monuments are part of America’s great natural heritage,” said William Chandler, Vice President for Government Affairs. “Our goal in releasing the report,” he continued, “is to help Pacific law enforcement agencies better patrol these remote sites scattered across a vast ocean. They are dedicated to the task but could use more resources, partners, and innovative tactics.”

The area of ocean involved – 335,000 square miles – is almost three times the size of all national parks combined, and contains the most diverse and relatively-pristine coral reefs in the US. The four Pacific marine monuments are spread across the largest area of ocean managed under one country's jurisdiction which makes monitoring and enforcement a herculean task.

In January 2009, President George W. Bush exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish the Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments. Collectively, the three monuments encompass nearly 200,000 square miles of low coral islands and their surrounding pelagic zones, which extend roughly 50 nautical miles (nm) seaward of island shorelines. These areas harbor some of the last relatively pristine marine ecosystems in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, and are home to countless species of marine wildlife, including dolphins, whales, turtles, seabirds, fish, invertebrates, and corals. The presidential proclamations creating these areas prohibit all commercial resource extraction activities, explicitly ban commercial fishing, and allow limited subsistence or recreational fishing.

The creation of the monuments reflects a growing trend in ocean protection as nations shift their focus away from smaller, coastal Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in favor of larger areas that capture an array of marine ecosystems and biodiversity (e.g., the South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area created in 2012 spans 386,372 square miles). Unfortunately, large ocean areas remote from human populations are difficult and costly to manage and enforce. Without the provision of sufficient resources, even government agencies of wealthy nations cannot monitor these places on a consistent basis, let alone manage and protect them at a level commensurate with their status as internationally recognized conservation areas.

To ensure that the US Pacific marine national monuments (MNMs) in the Western and Central Pacific do not simply linger as “paper parks,” Marine Conservation Institute assessed the major human threats to these areas and reviewed the current performance of US law enforcement agencies in deterring and prosecuting activities that could prove catastrophic to monument ecosystems. Based on an analysis of vessel traffic in the region, damage to the Pacific MNMs is likely to occur in one of the following ways: 1) illegal fishing activity by US or foreign fishing vessels; 2) accidental groundings and oil spills by large commercial vessels (e.g. container ships or tankers) or fishing vessels; or 3) introduction of invasive marine or terrestrial species by small recreational vessels (e.g. sailboats) that trespass in nearshore island waters or on the islands themselves. A synthesis of government documents, personal interviews with federal enforcement staff, and information from international fishery management organizations shows that vessel-based threats continue to manifest themselves inside Pacific marine national monuments.

For example:
Since the monuments were created in January 2009, there have been low but consistent levels of illegal fishing by US-registered vessels inside the boundaries of Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands MNMs.

Foreign fishing vessel incursions are a regular occurrence in the vast and discontinuous US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean; there have been at least two documented cases of foreign vessels fishing illegally inside Marianas Trench MNM, and many more suspected violations.

There have been several documented cases of attempted or actual illegal trespass by recreational sailing vessels at various islands within the Pacific Remote Islands MNM; in one case the presence of an invasive terrestrial species (a rat) was linked to a trespassing vessel at Johnston Atoll, which previously had been cleared of rats.

Historically, commercial fishing vessels have posed the greatest threat of accidental groundings and spills; in the last 25 years there have been groundings on Rose Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef, all of which caused significant and lingering damage.

The Pacific marine monuments are unprecedented in their geographic scope, ecological value, and national symbolism for ocean conservation. Their creation changes the landscape of ocean protection in the Pacific Islands region. Agencies must adapt traditional enforcement approaches to meet this new mandate. Collaboration and innovative thinking is essential to protecting the monuments and preserving their status as icons of ocean conservation in a time of flat or declining budgets.