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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Pew unable to negotiate early end to fishery

By Jay Nelson

When President Bush designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as the world's largest marine reserve, he recognized the long-term conservation, cultural, scientific and educational benefits to Hawai'i would dwarf any potential loss of economic activity. The public in Hawai'i also understood this and applauded the President's decision.

However, one provision of the monument proclamation has generated some controversy the closure in 2011 of the bottomfish fishery in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Although this fishery was restricted to 17 permits in the mid-'90s, only eight vessels remain. In the past decade, the others have become victims of high fuel costs, low fish prices and generally poor economics. Round trips of 1,000 miles and one or two weeks in length pose a daunting and expensive hurdle. The most recent information from 2003 indicates that net income for all vessels combined was only $300,000. Catches have declined since then and indications are that even without the commercial fishing closure, this fishery will continue to shrink.

Proposals to close the NW Hawaiian Islands to commercial fishing have been under discussion for some time. To help resolve one of the difficult issues surrounding a closure, more than a year ago, the Pew Charitable Trusts approached the affected fishermen and federal and state officials to explore the idea of offering financial compensation for fishermen to facilitate a decision to close the bottomfish fishery. Compensating the fishermen would speed the establishment of a conservation zone in the NW Hawaiian Islands and help smooth a transition out of the fishery for those who depend on it for their livelihood. Given the poor economics of the fishery, we felt this might offer an attractive option.

It's important to understand that bottomfish permits only confer permission to use a publicly owned resource. These federal fishing permits are similar to your driver's license. They cannot be transferred or sold, and if not used they eventually expire. Also, just as with a driver's license, permission can be revoked without compensation. Fishing for a public resource is a privilege, not a right.

More than a year ago, the Pew Charitable Trusts met with each of the permit holders to inquire about their interest in participating in a privately financed buyout of their fishing privileges in the NW Hawaiian Islands. At that time, each of them indicated a willingness to discuss that possibility. We offered three conditions: First, we needed to have the cooperation and support of the state and federal governments to successfully conclude any agreement.

Second, we needed to have all eight permit holders participate in the buyout offer. Our interest in the buyout was to secure an early closure of the NW Hawaiian Islands fishery to protect and begin restoration of the ecosystem. Third, the compensation must be fair and equitable based on the average fishing income of each individual permit holder over the past several years in the NW Hawaiian Islands.

However, events superseded discussions with fishermen, and on June 15, 2006, President Bush signed a proclamation that closed the NWHI bottomfish fishery effective June 15, 2011.

The decision by President Bush to establish the NWHI Marine National Monument and close commercial fishing effectively achieved our goal of establishing a protected area. When that occurred, some individuals encouraged us to withdraw our offer to discuss a buyout with the bottomfish permit holders given that the fishery would be closed in five years. However, because of our goal of ending fishing in the monument immediately, as well as a previous pledge to state and federal officials and to the permit holders, we remained committed to negotiating a fair and equitable compensation package.

On July 7, 2006, we sent a letter to the eight permit holders asking for an indication of their interest in negotiating a buyout of their fishing privileges. We asked the fishermen to reply by Aug. 11, 2006, but only two responded.

On Aug. 29, 2006, we sent another letter informing the permit holders that to give them more time to consider their options, we were extending to Sept. 30 our deadline for receiving an indication of interest from them. During this period, we discussed our offer with a number of state and federal officials, and were encouraged by them to continue our efforts. We also wanted everyone to understand that our willingness to negotiate had to be contingent on the cooperation and interest of the permitees.

In the four months since President Bush announced the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands fishery would be closing in 2011, each of the permit holders was contacted multiple times to encourage their cooperation and ask for feedback. In response to their initial concerns, we made an explicit offer to pay each of the fishermen five times their average annual income derived from fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to cover the lost income from the early end of their fishing activities.

In spite of our best efforts to be flexible, to give all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands permittees additional time to consider our proposals and to offer to negotiate in good faith, the majority of the permit holders declined to enter into discussions of a buyout. The fishermen had little to lose in sitting down with us since any agreement was entirely voluntary.

Recently, we sent a letter to the permit holders informing them that we are concluding our efforts to negotiate a reasonable compensation package with them. We deeply regret this outcome. However, given their continued refusal to negotiate, there is little more we can do.

Jay Nelson directs the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.