U.S. Transfers Rights To Submerged Lands In Northern Islands To CNMI

Mineral rights, management of Farallon De Pajaros, Maug, Asuncion assumed by Marianas government

By Emmanuel T. Erediano -

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Sept. 23, 2016) – Governor Ralph Torres on Thursday signed a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Departments of Commerce and the Interior for the transfer to the CNMI of submerged lands and associated minerals surrounding Farallon De Pajaros, Maug and Asuncion.

Also signing the MOA were Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs Lori Faeth and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Eileen Sobeck.

They signing at 4:30 p.m. Thursday marked the conclusion of this year’s U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting which was held in the Fiesta Resort’s Hibiscus Hall.

“The CNMI is facing many new considerations, such as the return of our submerged lands, a proposed military buildup and training activity, as well as management of the Marianas Trench National Marine Monument,” Torres said.

“These issues present great opportunities for our partnerships to find those strong paths forward together to get the best outcome for the people of the CNMI,” he added.

The MOA establishes the terms and conditions for the coordination of management of the Northern Islands submerged lands. It also lays out the roles and responsibilities of the CNMI government, NOAA Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the preservation and protection of the natural resources of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

The MOA will ultimately transfer the submerged lands to the CNMI after a 60-day U.S. congressional review.

Faeth expressed her great appreciation for the collaboration and hard work among Interior, NOAA and the CNMI government.

“It’s an important step forward for transferring the submerged lands to the CNMI — we are honored to be part of this,” Faeth said.

Sobeck thanked the governor for his leadership and said the MOA is a “double milestone” for the CNMI.

In a statement, U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan congratulated Torres and the federal officials for signing the MOA.

“This agreement is a necessary step to allow the transfer of ownership of the…submerged lands,” Kilili said. “That is a goal we have all been working towards for a number of years, and it should now be possible to complete it before President Obama leaves office in January.

“I want to thank Governor Torres and his team for successfully negotiating this agreement and their federal counterparts, including Ms. Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for fisheries at the Department of Commerce and Ms. Lori Faeth, deputy assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Department of Interior.”

Kilili said conveyance of all submerged lands around the Marianas was authorized by U.S. Public Law 113-34, enacted in 2013. Kilili was instrumental in that enactment. The first bill he authored in Congress in 2009 allowed for ownership of submerged lands to be handed over to the commonwealth government. Four years later, working with Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Kilili was able to get the bill signed into law by President Obama.

In 2014, the president conveyed submerged lands around nine of the Mariana islands to the CNMI. But he withheld the areas in the Islands Unit of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument and around military leases on Tinian and Farallon de Medinilla, until the U.S. and CNMI agreed on how to coordinate management of their adjacent lands.

Kilili said “an agreement has now been signed for the Islands Unit, opening the way for the conveyance of submerged lands around the islands of Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion.”

The U.S. and the commonwealth agreed to allow the Commerce and Interior departments to continue managing the lands in consultation with the CNMI, until the commonwealth decides to assume management responsibilities, he added.

Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion are already protected areas under Section 2 of Article XIV of the Commonwealth Constitution. The U.S. and CNMI agree to continue to preserve and protect plant species, birds, and other wildlife in the Islands Unit as required by the Constitution.

The agreement also recognizes the cultural significance of the areas to the indigenous Chamorro and Carolinian peoples and promises to manage the submerged lands in a manner that honors that heritage.

Sustenance, recreational, and traditional indigenous fishing in a sustainable fashion will also continue to be allowed.

The agreement is to be reviewed every 10 years and can be terminated by either party on a 30-day notice without affecting ownership of the submerged lands.

Marianas Variety
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