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By Agnes Donato

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, May 23) – The Bush administration will only support the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ claim over submerged lands extending no more than three miles offshore, according to a visiting federal official.

Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary David Cohen, who visited Saipan yesterday, met with Gov. Benigno R. Fitial and Attorney General Matthew Gregory to discuss the submerged lands issue.

[PIR editor’s note: According to PIR news files, Northern Marianas’ Washington Representative Pete Tenorio has stated that passage of Senate Bill S. 1831 would give the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas full control over the 3 miles of submerged lands seaward from the islands shores, which is exactly what the other territories and coastal states have. The Northern Marianas' submerged lands is currently under control of the U.S. federal government, which limits the Commonwealth's ability to negotiate and enter into agreements with foreign fishing companies and minerals exploration in order to reap economic benefits.]

In an interview before the meeting, Cohen said the Commonwealth had the federal government's support in its efforts to gain control over the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ submerged lands. However, this backing applies only to granting the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands the same control that all other territories, except Puerto Rico, have over their submerged lands.

Fitial wants the same status as Puerto Rico, which has jurisdiction over nine miles of submerged lands.

"I'm happy to discuss this with the governor. But the [Bush] administration has spoken," said Cohen. "Perhaps, if we can get the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands what all the other territories have, we can come back together and explore the possibility of getting nine miles for everyone. I don't know if that is realistic or not, but the legislation [pending in the U.S. Congress] is just for three miles and it provides an opportunity for the Northern Marianas to get that."

He also said that the submerged lands bill was intended to address the existing gap where nobody has proper enforcement authority over Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands submerged lands from zero to three miles offshore.

"We would just like to make sure that such a gap does not cause problems," Cohen said.

Authored by New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, Senate Bill 1831 would give the Commonwealth full control over three miles of submerged land seaward from its shores. Other U.S. states and territories, except Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico have the same arrangement with the federal government.

Fitial recently asked Domenici to withdraw the bill from consideration.

"We're not asking for the whole nine yards. We're only asking for the same control that Puerto Rico has. We have more ocean than Puerto Rico," Fitial has said.

Washington Rep. Pedro A. Tenorio disagrees with the governor's position. "I sincerely believe that [Fitial's] request for a grant greater than the three miles being provided under the Senate Bill 1831 will not be possible. Withdrawing the current bill in the Senate, which will grant the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands the same rights as Guam and other territories will set the Northern Marianas back from actually managing its own marine resources, maybe for years."

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands originally wanted control over submerged lands extending 200 miles seaward from the coastline.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld earlier rulings by the U.S. District Court on Saipan and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands currently had no rights to the submerged lands surrounding the islands.

[PIR editor’s note: On March 21, the U.S. Supreme Court junked the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ petition to reverse a ruling of an appellate court, which affirmed the federal government's ownership of some 264,000-square miles of submerged lands in the Northern Marianas. (See story)]

May 23, 2006

Saipan Tribune http://www.saipantribune.com

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