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By Agnes Donato

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 12) – Two Oahu-based sport fishing groups are calling for a federal investigation of the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council ("Wespac"), the group responsible for management of the seas around Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and other U.S. possessions in the Pacific Ocean.

The Oahu Game Fish Club and the Waianae Boat Fishing Club complained to the U.S. Commerce Department that the council has been more focused on protecting big industry interests than protecting marine resources. The clubs have asked the department to review the council's conduct, submitting a 43-report brief in support of their request.

Council spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding said Tuesday that council officials were reviewing the report. Council representatives are currently meeting in Guam for its 129th meeting to discuss fishery issues in the Pacific. The council, together with the National Marine Fisheries Service, recently gave a grant to the Guam Fishermen's Co-op to explore long-line fisheries off Guam.

Small-boat fishermen in Hawaii have noticed since 1983 that the council has gone out of its way to focus on the needs of the large industrial fleets and not the state of ocean resources, said William Aila, a Leeward Oahu community activist and spokesman for the two fishing groups.

"We've always felt that Wespac has been too friendly to resource extraction and there's not been enough balance," Aila said.

At least one council member has also voted on issues that would directly affect his own businesses in the fishing trade, according to the report.

The two Hawaii fishing organizations’ request was supported by a detailed report that describes an alleged pattern of "improper and dishonest conduct" in a campaign by Wespac to undermine presidential executive orders and laws guiding the establishment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve and a related proposal to designate the area a marine sanctuary.

The report alleges actions that may have violated the law, including a refusal to follow the law, improper lobbying by employees of a federal agency, misuse of federal funds and manipulations of rules and regulations regarding public participation.

Late last month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected the council's recommendations for managing the federal waters surrounding the remote chain of islands and atolls stretching 1,200 miles northwest of Kauai after the area gained sanctuary status.

The council had proposed allowing up to 17 commercial bottom-fishing boats in the area, and left open the possibility of harvesting lobster, precious coral and coral reef fish. Federal officials said the council's ideas didn't meet the goals set for a marine sanctuary.

"This slap at Wespac is the consequence of more than five year’s of effort by Wespac to undermine and ignore the efforts of two presidents, the Governor of Hawaii and the majority of Hawaiians to protect and conserve the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands," the two groups said in a statement.

"We believe this report shows a pattern of behavior by Wespac that warrants investigation by the Inspector General," said Aila. "The conservation and protection of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands has support from Hawaiians across the political spectrum. And yet Wespac has engaged in a shameful campaign of misinformation and manipulation of the public process in order to advance their narrow agenda and the interests of a few individuals."

"Everyone in the Hawai’i fishing industry knows that Wespac regularly uses these kinds of questionable practices. We’re hoping that by bringing this to the attention of the Inspector General we can force Wespac to reform," he said.

The report also alleges conflicts of interest by members of Wespac "that might explain the behavior of that agency." According to Aila, "What we want to see from this report is for the Inspector General to thoroughly investigate Wespac and do whatever is necessary to get Wespac back on track to doing its job within the legal mandates."

Wespac’s job is to help the Department of Commerce develop fishery management plans and advise the department on fishing matters. It is wholly funded through the Department of Commerce; its members are appointed by the Secretary of Commerce and are compensated by the Department for their work. Wespac staff are federal employees within the Department of Commerce.

The Inspector General in the Department of Commerce is responsible for auditing and investigating the performance of the activities of agencies of the department, particularly in cases of illegal or unethical behavior.

November 15, 2005

Saipan Tribune

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