Mariana Trench: More waiting

Dear people of the Marianas: I have promised to keep you informed about the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument and here is the latest information I have recently learned. The nomination to the bring the sanctuary program to the CNMI is stalled. I think it’s important for the community to understand how important it is to have the NOAA Sanctuaries as our monument manager. The best way I can think of to share this with you is to give you the history. For some of you, I might be repeating myself, but for others, I hope that this would give you a better understanding.

Ten years ago, in October 2008, the Friends of the Mariana Trench wrote a letter to then-President George W. Bush and asked him to designate a marine national monument. We specifically proposed “that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through its National Marine Sanctuaries Program, be the federal agency that administers, co-manages, and enforces the monument, along with the CNMI.” I quote this from our original vision letter to Bush on Oct. 15, 2008.

We made this “Vision Statement” for a proposal. It described our hopes and goals for management and enforcement, culture and tradition, conservation, education, research, and economic development. It is widely published on the web or if you haven’t already seen it, you can also contact me, and I will give you a copy. The letter was drafted through the effort of several members of our community and it took three to four weeks for us to complete it. We discussed a lot and worked hard to make sure that all voices were included.

Ten years ago, when the monument was declared by Proclamation 8335, we celebrated and hoped that this was the beginning of our journey to achieve our vision. But, when we had the chance to read the details of the monument declaration, we immediately noticed that it didn’t follow our vision statement proposal. Our first concern was that the CNMI was not given “co-management” and the NOAA Sanctuaries office was not given management of the monument. Instead, NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service were made the managers and the monument was to be managed “in consultation with” the CNMI. It was in 2009 that the Friends wrote to newly-elected Delegate Sablan and asked him to help correct these issues. We knew the monument as it was declared would never result in the benefits we had all hoped for. We have been saying this for a decade now.

For the next 10 years, we spent our energy trying to convince the Obama administration to bring the NOAA Sanctuary program to the CNMI. Then the same when the Trump administration began. We have a paper trail documenting these communications and would be happy to share the letters. We first approached the federal government in 2009, and the NOAA administrator told us no. We approached them again in 2010, and again they told us no. In 2013, Delegate Sablan approached the administration. By now four years had passed and there hadn’t been any progress on the monument. They again said no, because the monument management plan was due out “next year.” That was five years ago. Then in 2016, Delegate Sablan and Gov. Torres approached the administration again; and this time they listened. The White House asked the delegate and the governor to submit an official nomination, and they in turn asked us to write one. 

So, in December 2016, as the chairman of the Friends of the Mariana Trench, we submitted a nomination for a Mariana Trench Marine National Sanctuary—something we’ve been working toward for more than a decade. The process to nominate a sanctuary is transparent and open and is outlined on the NOAA website (https://nominate.noaa.gov/). NOAA Sanctuaries accepted our nomination in March 2017. The nomination is now on the inventory of possible sanctuaries (which can be viewed online). The next step is to begin a sanctuary process, a transparent and open process that engages the community on how they want ocean conservation to take place in our community. When this process begins, NOAA Sanctuaries has told us that they would open an office and hire local staff—something that after 10 long years USFWS and NOAA Fisheries have not done.

As we have said from the time of the original proposal, the vision of the Friends for the Mariana Trench monument is not possible without the partnership of NOAA Sanctuaries. The agencies assigned by the Proclamation 8335 in January 2009, NOAA Fisheries and National Wildlife Refuge, do not have the same mandate or mission to do the activities or set up a visitor’s center like NOAA Sanctuaries does. While the Friends has very good working relationships with both agencies, it doesn’t matter how much we try, they don’t have the mandate or authority to help us get those things that we envisioned. This is why we continue to ask NOAA Sanctuaries to accept our nomination. Like many people in our community, including our lawmakers, we too want to see the vision come true.

However, despite our decade of advocacy, in June of this year the Trump administration decided not to start the sanctuary process in our community. The reason given by NOAA Fisheries officials in Hawaii is that the monument management plan is coming “next year”—this is the same excuse they’ve used every year since 2013 and it blocks us from the sanctuary nomination going forward.

There are likely several reasons why the sanctuary process is not starting, but it really does not help that our local government sends the federal government mixed signals about our goal to protect our ocean. Gov. Torres says he wants the federal spending of the sanctuary program, but then he stands next to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke and says he wants to open our waters to industrial fishing boats—boats that would compete with our local fishermen.

So yet again, we find ourselves stuck. We are not going to achieve our vision of conservation with the current monument, but the federal government will not fix the monument because they say NOAA Fisheries and USFWS are going to publish a management plan “next year.” Yet, they haven’t done their job in 10 years, haven’t hired any local staff in 10 years, and the $1 million annual budget has been used to support operations in Honolulu for the last 10 years. This needs to change.

I will leave the story here for today but promise that I will give you more updates during the coming weeks. There are some things we need to think about and discuss and I look forward to your continued support. If you are interested in becoming more active and to help us more hands on, email marianamonument@gmail.com.

As always, si yu’use ma’ase, olomwaay, salmat po, thank you and God bless.

***
Ignacio V. Cabrera is chairman of the Friends of the Mariana Trench board.

IGNACIO V. CABRERA Author

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