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Environmentalists cry foul after $4.4 million compensation

By Christopher Pala SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business Magazine, Oct. 19, 2010) - Environmentalists in Hawaii are crying foul after 15 fishermen widely blamed for overfishing the spiny lobster population of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands collected US$288,502 each from the government this year. Several of the lobstermen complained that wasn’t enough and demanded US$1.6 million each.

"Compensating fishermen for fishing down a resource to economic extinction sets a terrible precedent for the entire world," said Linda Paul of the Hawaii Audubon Society.

The fishermen received their licenses for free in 1983 when the fishery was opened. Working only half the year (they fished tuna and billfish with longlines the other half), they pulled up 2 million lobsters in their traps in 1985 -- five times more than what the government recommended -- from the chain of pristine islets that stretches 2000 kilometers from the main Hawaiian Islands. But their catch rapidly started falling as the lobsters became scarce. Even after a two-year closure, they only took 38,000 lobsters in 1995.

At first, the fishermen were ordered to release undersized specimens and females with eggs -- 500,000 of them, or 28 percent of the total, in 1985. By 1996, the proportion of these -- mostly juveniles -- had risen to 62 percent, according to a government study.

But instead of forcing the fishermen to use methods that would insure a higher survival rate of the released ones, the government changed the rule that year and allowed the fishermen to keep them.

The fishery was closed several times by the federal fisheries authorities. A federal court closed it as well in 2000 - by then only five vessels were active - and it was never reopened.

Six years later, President Bush overcame over a decade of opposition from Hawaii’s long-serving Senator Daniel Inouye, a reliable defender of the fishermen’s interests, and declared the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national marine monument where no fishing could take place.

At the time, seven small vessels were bottom-fishing for snapper in the islands and the declaration ordered the fishery to be closed by 2011. A study had found that the fishermen were catching slow-growing snappers faster than they could reproduce.

In 2007, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, known as Wespac, formally requested a compensation program for both the bottom-fishermen and the lobstermen.

The quasi-governmental agency is charged with advising the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on fisheries policy, but because of the strong support the agency receives from Sen. Inouye, who is on the Senate panel that funds NOAA, Wespac wields disproportionate influence.

This year, after Congress appropriated funds, NOAA announced the seven, still-active bottom-fishers would receive $2.2 million and the 15 lobstermen who hadn’t fished since 2000 would share $4.4 million.

When ISLANDS BUSINESS asked Wende Goo, the Honolulu spokeswoman for NOAA, for the names of the recipients and the amounts they received, she replied in an e-mail: "The specific payoff amounts are proprietary information so I cannot disclose it." She declined to say why.

ISLANDS BUSINESS filed an official request under the Freedom of Information Act, but the names of the recipients still did not appear. These finally were provided after a second request, but the amounts earned by the bottom-fishers were not disclosed, only their names.

While five of the 15 lobster license holders no longer own boats, another five showed ties to three present or former members of Wespac:

"The taxpayers of America should be outraged that Jim Cook and his cronies got nearly a third of a million bucks for dead permits in a fishery long closed due to overfishing and mismanagement," former Wespac member Rick Gaffney said.

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