In September, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommended the modification of ten national monuments to President Trump. In addition to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Gold Butte in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, Zinke recommended shrinking two marine national monuments, the Pacific Remote Islands and the Rose Atoll. Zinke suggested that the designations of these monuments be modified “to allow commercial fishing,” along with a similar recommendation for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument, off the coast of New England. The administration should instead heed the call of scientists, and consider the long-term repercussions of abandoning these protected areas – including for the fishing industry itself.

In an in-depth piece in the New York times last month, Christopher Pala reports on the controversy over the marine reserves, speaking to observers on both sides of the issue.

The two Pacific monuments currently ban commercial fishing in a mostly uninhabited set of islands south of the Hawaiian archipelago.

While Zinke’s recommendations said nothing about the nearby Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the same industry forces that fought for protections to be scaled down in the other two monuments have argued that commercial fishing should be allowed there as well. Papahānaumokuākea is the world’s largest protected marine area at 583,000 square miles – twice the size of Texas.

The Hawaiian fishing industry, with the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac) leading the charge, helped push the administration to consider scaling down protections. Wespac has consistently fought against the creation and expansion of marine monuments, instead arguing in favor of regulating catch, gear, and fishing seasons as a way to avoid overfishing and ensure sustainability. In a presentation to other fisheries councils earlier this year, they claimed such monuments “curtailed economic growth” and threaten “national food security.”

However, scientists argue that monuments such as these are some of the last well-preserved marine ecosystems on the planet. With modern, industrial fishing able to make huge impacts on fish populations and their ecosystems, such reserves have become increasingly vital. In the long-run, this sustainability is essential for the fishing industry as well. Healthy fish stocks throughout the ocean depend on healthy ecosystems. For scientists, protected areas allow researchers to study the repercussions of climate change on oceans untouched by pollution and overfishing. This research is important to society as a whole.

Listening to the passionate arguments against the protections, you would think the Hawaiian fishing industry has been struggling. But experts have pointed out that this is not the case. Bigeye tuna catches have doubled since 2006, even with half of US Pacific waters now unavailable for fishing. Fishermen filled their annual quota of this popular fish in August of this year. Evidence that such protections are truly harming “national food security” is hard to come by.

Scientists argue that protected areas provide respite for species that are under threat elsewhere, and for species who have been forced away from the equator by rising water temperatures. The Pacific Remote Islands monument protects untouched coral reefs, while the Rose Atoll is home to birds such as terns and rare petrels, as well as giant clams, reef sharks and rose-colored coral. Rose Atoll is considered by the Fish & Wildlife Service to be the most important habitat for seabirds in region.

These protections are also essential to protecting fish stocks – marine protections are in the long-term interests of the fishing industry. Many industry advocates have overlooked this big picture, advocating against the monuments in principle.

According to Ray Hillborn, University of Washington fisheries expert and scientific advisor to Wespac, popular catches such as tuna and billfish migrate freely through of the reserve. He called the monuments “fake protection.”

“The monuments just force the fishermen to go farther and spend more fuel to catch the same fish,” he said.

However, research suggests Hillborn may be wrong in his analysis of fish populations.

Research, such as that of Jonathan A. Mee, a fish geneticist at Mount Royal University in Alberta, suggests that some fish spend their entire lives within the boundaries of such reserves, ensuring those fish are never caught. In turn, a higher number of females there produce more plentiful and higher quality eggs, increasing the density of the population even more. Mee’s research suggests this will favor the selection of a “lazy” gene over time, accelerating population growth with these boundaries even further.

This would provide a much-needed boost to fish such as the bigeye tuna, a favorite for sushi markets. Bigeye tuna populations are now estimated to be 16 percent of their original size. Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, says this means that the value of the larger protected areas will only increase over time.

According to Dr. Pauly:

“Technology and subsidies have allowed industrial fleets to go farther and farther, and deeper and deeper, and to deplete stock after stock. The only thing standing between these fleets and global depletion are these big no-take reserves, so this is the time to create more, not to open up the existing ones to fishing.”

Elliot Norse, founder and chief scientist of the Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute, explained in an interview with National Geographic:

“Science shows that we have to start using the most powerful tool we have, and that is no-take marine reserves in places like remote islands, where organisms have been vulnerable to human activities, including fishing.”

Once again, the Trump administration seems to be giving a great deal of weight to industry voices more concerned with short-term profits, and deregulation in principle, than with long-term sustainability. But the reality is that the fishing industry, in the long-run, should value the benefits of such protections as much as any scientist or environmentalist. The administration should consider the input of scientists, who are in a position to consider the long-term repercussions.

Note: Apologies for an earlier version of this article that failed to duly credit the hard work of journalist Christopher Pala, on whose article this opinion piece is based.

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