EXCLUSIVE: John Podesta, the Obama administration’s climate and energy czar, got a blunt warning this week that a plan to cut off all fishing in a huge, U.S.-controlled tract of the Pacific Ocean would have devastating economic effects in the region, and would cede geopolitical advantages to China and other Pacific powers.
“China is overwhelming the South Pacific with investment, and increasing its fishing fleet in the area,” noted Eric Kingma, a Hawaii-based fisheries enforcement official and one of those who carried the warning. For the U.S. not to recognize this potential for lost influence would be “incredibly naïve,” he added.
Kingma was part of a group representing Pacific fishermen, scientists and government-appointed conservation officials on Tuesday who told Podesta and other White House senior staff that the action would make the U.S. the only country in the vast region putting almost all of its 200-mile exclusive economic zone around a speckling of U.S. Pacific territorial islands out of reach of its own fishing fleets; severely cut into the $100 million Hawaiian-based fishing and processing industry; and adversely affect future U.S. fishing treaty negotiations.
The group represent a Pacific fishery management council under the auspices of the Administration itself, and presented their dire predication at a 70-minute meeting billed as a “listening session” hard by the Oval Office, in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.
(In an odd historical note, the Roosevelt Room was known until Richard Nixon’s time in White House parlance as the Fish Room, because Franklin Delano Roosevelt installed an aquarium and various mounted fish there. The name, and the fish, are gone now.)
The nine-person group came with letters, resolutions, pleas and public testimony from governors and legislators in American Samoa, and Guam, among other places, not to mention mayors, chambers of commerce, business leaders and representatives of fishing and native peoples’ associations -- all strongly opposed to the administration’s plan, along with their own arguments against the expansion.
President Obama, who first announced in mid-June the planned tenfold expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, currently a 77,000-square-mile preserve south and west of Hawaii, did not attend, though the meeting was bumped into the White House at the last minute from the next-door Executive Office Building.
Along with Podesta, however, a goodly slice of the top brass known as the White House Council on Environmental Quality, or CEQ, were present, including the council’s acting chair, Michael Boots, and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Daniel Ashe.
The people they listened to were members of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, a nearly 40-year-old U.S. organization that already has authority for the “sustainable” management of fisheries in vast Pacific territories, under the auspices of the Secretary of Commerce.
Council frustrations—and local anger -- have been rising at the idea of a vastly expanded Pacific no-go zone for fishermen since it was video-announced by President Obama at a State Department conference in mid-June as one of his dramatic “phone and pen” initiatives.
Podesta, who also has been the U.S. point-person on a high level United Nations panel to transform the world’s economic, environmental and social order, also made a video-appearance at the closed-door conference. The State Department meeting was aimed at greater international coordination to overcome a variety of assumed ocean ills, including not only overfishing, but marine pollution and ocean acidification -- the last linked by conservationists to global carbon emissions and “climate change.”
Representatives of the council were not present at the State Department session where the national monument expansion was unveiled.
Members and local residents quickly made their feelings known, however, at a heated “town hall” session in August in Honolulu, hosted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Federal officials did not allow the session to be filmed, but attendees, and the management council, have cobbled together their own video record of the session.
Since then, regional frustration has grown even more heated at the word from far-away Washington that Pacific lives—and livelihoods—were about to be changed dramatically by the administration’s executive fiat, especially since the council’s own regulatory plans, as they put it in talking points for the White House meeting, had been “vetted through rigorous scientific and public review processes and approved by the Secretary of Commerce.”
In their presentation to Podesta and the CEQ top staff, the fishery council reps stressed that their regulatory regime was already considered the “global model” for “long-line”, i.e. industrial baited-hook harvesting of deep sea predatory fish such as tuna and other species.
Overall, the U.S. is heavily dependent on foreign-caught seafood, while their fishery, the representatives argued, not only provides much of the domestically harvested big tuna and swordfish, but “is also the major employer for American Samoa.”
Other countries with territories in the Pacific archipelagos, not to mention other island micro-states in the region “support their fisheries and fishermen — except the United States.” This, they argued, “is not only unfair but it is wrong.”
Arrayed on the other side of the sweeping new preservation plan have been not only the more aggressive conservationists in the administration, but also a variety of environmental non-profits and interested foundations, including the Pew Foundation.
Pew has argued in a “confidential background dossier” supporting the marine monument expansion that the extensive coral reefs and rich biodiversity of the area deserve the expanded protection.
The dossier also argues that U.S. commercial fishing in most of the additional area to be protected does not amount to much—about 1 percent to 3 percent of the fishery’s overall catch, and that U.S. fishermen can make up the difference elsewhere, so that “their overall catch levels would not be impacted.”
The management council’s counter-argument is that the expanded monument area is more important during some seasons than others, as far as catches are concerned, and it comes atop increasingly tight quotas for U.S.- based fishing fleets regardless of where they drop nets or hooks, amounting to a unique double-squeeze that would apply only to U.S. fishermen.
How the White House environmental hierarchy felt after the session is not known. Members of the fishery council delegation told Fox News that at the end of their session, Podesta told them, “You have been heard.”
The White House press office had not answered questions from Fox News regarding the meeting and its outcome before this article was published. But a White House press spokesman said that “Before making a final decision about the specifics of future marine protections, the administration will consider the input of fishermen, scientists, conservation experts, elected officials and other stakeholders.”