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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Budget cuts may close Pacific fisheries office

Advertiser Staff and News Services

Five months after a presidential commission recommended spending billions more to protect the nation's oceans, the White House has proposed a budget that would reduce money for fisheries and eliminate the Pacific Islands Regional Office in Hawai'i.

The proposed $727 million National Marine Fisheries Service budget slices nearly $100 million off the current year's spending — an 11.6 percent decline. It would cut spending in half on programs that monitor and protect marine mammals, including whales, bottlenose dolphins and porpoises.

But the spending blueprint also would increase money for enforcement and buy a new research boat for the West Coast.

William Hogarth, who heads the Fisheries Service, said he will have to turn to Congress to replace money for the regional office in Hawai'i, because shutting it down "is not an option."

Paul Achitoff, an attorney with the nonprofit Earthjustice environmental law firm in Honolulu, said the cuts are disconcerting for Hawai'i.

"This is the agency charged with marine conservation, and the less money for enforcement and research supporting conservation of fisheries and marine resources, the worse off we'll all be," he said yesterday.

Wende Goo, spokeswoman for the Pacific Islands Regional Office, said employees were alarmed by news of the budget cuts but are unsure of the details.

"We're not packing our bags yet," she said.

The Pacific Islands Region, formed almost a year ago after a reorganization, oversees a little more than 200 employees who run a regional office and science center in Honolulu, covering millions of square miles in the Central and Western Pacific Ocean.

The science center is essentially the fisheries laboratory that existed before the creation of the Pacific Islands Region, and it's unclear what might stay or go under the president's proposal, Goo said.

While Hogarth doesn't like the idea of losing the Pacific Islands Regional Office, he did say he was happy with the agency's budget.

"You can always use more," he said. "But if you look at the economic conditions in this country, we got a fair shake."

The proposed budget would allow the agency to hire two more observers to monitor fishing vessels and their interaction with bycatch — unwanted animals that get caught up in fishing gear. It also provides additional money for systems used to help monitor where commercial boats are fishing.

Hogarth said he was particularly pleased to get an additional research vessel because the agency's ships are having mechanical problems and lack the technology necessary for deep-water studies. It's the fourth new vessel ordered by the agency in recent years, and the first is just being delivered to the Alaska region.

Environmental groups said the spending cuts fly in the face of two major reports last year that called for greater protections for the oceans, including the creation of a $4 billion government trust fund to pay for improved research, fisheries management and pollution controls.

"Everyone is embracing the oceans and saying we need to take action, and the administration didn't step up," said Gerald Leape, vice president for marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust.

Advertiser staff writer Timothy Hurley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.