WASHINGTON—The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project applauds the leadership of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), whose actions resulted in the transfer of control of submerged lands from the U.S. to the Commonwealth on Dec. 21, 2016. This transfer was a result of discussions that go back almost a decade, when the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush promised control of submerged lands around the Northern Mariana Islands at the time of the designation of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument in 2008.
“Returning the ownership of the submerged lands to the people of the Northern Mariana Islands is a great victory both today and for future generations,” Torres. “After many years of disagreement and hard work between the NMI and the federal government over this issue, the transfer of ownership back to the NMI will ensure that an integral part of our cultural heritage will always be available to support our dedication to protect our unique natural resources.”
“I look forward,” the governor added, “to continuing this working relationship with our federal counterparts as we move forward on managing our submerged lands.”
Public Law 113-34, which authorized the transfer, was drafted by Sablan and signed by President Barack Obama on Sept. 17, 2013. Shortly after the law was signed, Obama transferred control of the submerged lands around nine of the 14 islands but withheld transfer around the remaining islands to allow time to draft agreements that would ensure that the transfer did not negatively affect the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. A management agreement for three of these islands—Farallon de Pajaros (Uracas), Maug, and Asuncion—was finalized in September 2016 and signed by U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Torres last month.
The decision provides the Commonwealth government with legal authority over the seabed, subsoil, water column, and surface water resources in three geographical miles seaward from the mean high tide of the three islands.
“This gives power to our local leaders, who are responsible for handling the islands’ natural resources, and provides them more influence in how those resources can be conserved,” said Angelo O’Connor Villagomez, officer for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project. “Engagement and leadership by the communities of the Northern Mariana Islands have a long and successful history of ensuring that protection measures are in harmony with our local culture, heritage, and values.”
“In fact,” he added, “we were one of the first places in the world to guarantee a safe, clean environment to our people in our constitution.”
In addition to the submerged lands deal, Torres and Sablan wrote to Obama in September 2016 requesting that the government start the sanctuaries process for the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument through the Sanctuaries Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Becoming a national marine sanctuary would provide the monument with a more robust conservation and management profile as well as bring more resources for education and community engagement in the Northern Mariana Islands. The Commonwealth Legislature has written to the president in support of the governor and the delegate’s request, as has nearly every other elected official in the Commonwealth.
Building on this broad support, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project has been working with local stakeholders to provide scientific information about the unique biological, cultural, and historic values of the Marianas Trench waters, highlighting the benefits a Marianas Trench National Sanctuary would bring.
“Strong leadership from the peoples of the Northern Mariana Islands has guided the conservation of this ecologically, economically and culturally unique marine ecosystem,” said Damian Jensen, from the Bertarelli Foundation. “The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project will continue to support the local leaders of the Northern Marianas Islands as they push for the monument to become a marine national sanctuary.
Additionally, eight years after its creation, the monument was recently named as one of only nine U.S. sites on the shortlist for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“The pending UNESCO nomination as a World Heritage site is evidence enough to the outside world of something that we in the Northern Mariana Islands already knew: This is a rich and special ocean,” said Villagomez. “Our leaders are continuing to lead the way to safeguard and conserve our treasures long into the future.”
The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project is committed to collaborating with island residents, community leaders, government officials, scientists, and others to safeguard the world’s oceans and the life within them. Over the past 10 years, Pew has worked with stakeholders and partners worldwide to support the creation of nine major marine reserves that will protect 2.4 million square miles (6.3 million square kilometers) of ocean. (Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project)