Hawaii Official Seeks Full Public Disclosure of Marine Monument Permits

By Sunny Lewis

HONOLULU, Hawaii, April 5, 2007 (ENS) - The head of the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, DLNR, has proposed a 45 day public review process for all permits to conduct activities in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

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Chair of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Peter Young (Photo courtesy State of Hawaii)
In a letter to the state's Office of Information Practices, DLNR Chair Peter Young has requested assistance to help him assure "the greatest possible transparency and openness in the issuance of permits" for activities in monument waters.

Environmental groups as well as some fishing and Native Hawaiian groups are delighted with the move that they say is an attempt to bring an irregular permitting process shrouded in secrecy into the light of public scrutiny.

"This is wonderful news!" said Dr. Stephanie Fried, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense who is based in Honolulu. "The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands permitting process has been shrouded in secrecy and backroom deals between federal authorities for decades. Until Peter Young took charge, there was a total absence of sunshine or public input on these permits."

"We warmly welcome Chairman Young's efforts to lift the veil of secrecy from the DLNR," said hula teacher Vicky Holt Takamine, of the 'Ilio'ulaokalani Coalition, a native Hawaiian organization.

"Our cultural resources must be protected and openness and transparency are at the core of these efforts," Takamine said. "It is of the utmost importance that decision-making about activities there is transparent, with full opportunity for communities to comment."

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Reef fish in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo by James Watt courtesy USFWS)
Since it was proclaimed by President George W. Bush in June 2006, the new monument has been cooperatively managed by three co-trustees - the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Hawaii. The DLNR is the state's lead management agency for the monument.

Permits are required for research, education, conservation and management, native Hawaiian practices and non-extractive special ocean uses. The commercial and recreational harvest of precious coral, crustaceans and coral reef species is prohibited in monument waters and commercial fishing will be phased out over a five-year period from last June. Oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction are not allowed.

In 2005, Young ensured that language requiring public input was part of the rules governing the state's Northwestern Hawaiian Islands refuge. The refuge covers state waters three miles out from the shores of the 10 islands and atolls in the 1,400 mile long island chain.

The monument covers the nearly 140,000 square miles of federal waters, the Hawaiian Island Reservation established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The two federal co-trustee agencies have never provided an opportunity for public input on Northwestern Hawaiian Islands permits.

Marti Townsend of KAHEA-the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance said, "We greatly appreciate Peter Young's commitment to release the maximum amount of material possible to the public, including so-called 'pre-decisional' documents and full comments of state permit reviewers. It is only with the release of this material that public scrutiny will be able to help DLNR enforce the 'do no harm' standard now required by state law."

In a background document provided to ENS, environmental groups say they are concerned that permits were issued in what they call "a piecemeal manner" throughout 2006 for 340 people for 380 activities in the monument.

Only one permit was made public during the 2006 season, the groups complain. Staff at the DLNR's Division of Aquatic Resources "refused to release the other 24 permits until a complaint was filed with the Office of Information Practices."

Researchers aboard the NOAA research vessel Hi'ialakai allowed a wet lab aboard to become a "bacterial cesspool" according to a report by a NOAA scientist obtained by ENS and circulated to the Board of Land and Natural Resources, a state agency.

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The NOAA research vessel Hi'ialakai heads out of Honolulu for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The groups object that there has been "no real-time or post-season assessment of impacts" of permittees or of cumulative impacts of combined activities over the 2006 season reported to state or federal authorities.

In addition, they say there is a "significant increase" in the number of permit applications to 36 for 2007.

"In my lifetime I have witnessed severe declines in fish populations and the health of coral reefs, and decades of ineffective attempts by the DLNR to enact and enforce the necessary laws, regulations needed to protect and restore our marine environment," said Dave Raney, a Sierra Club volunteer.

"Under Peter Young's leadership, however, the DLNR has at last begun to tackle long-standing, and contentious issues. He has shown vision, courage and personal convictions in the face of strong, misguided, and intimidating opposition," said Raney.

But not everyone is a fan of Young's attempt to enable a public review process. Young is up for a re-confirmation hearing on April 11 before the state Senate Committee on Water, Land, Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs, and a petition is being circulated asking that his confirmation be denied.

The petition, which has attracted some 7,000 signatures, will be submitted to the committee, and signatories are being asked to testify against Young at the hearing. Some of those who signed the petition are fishermen who object to the no commercial fishing policy in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

Kitty Simons, head of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a federal advisory body, says she supports a protected area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but does not believe that commercial fishing should be excluded.

Young's supporters will also be out in force at the re-confirmation hearing.

A poll conducted by the Ocean Conservancy published July 18, 2006, found that 70 percent of the 2,014 people polled said they supported the establishment of a monument which is closed to commercial fishing. Only six percent were opposed.

The no-fishing rules were established after over 30 federal and state hearings and more than 100 public meetings that produced some 114,000 written pieces of testimony in support of the strongest possible protections for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.