Opening Palmyra’s waters to fishing would harm unique tropical research lab, scientists say. 

Erik Oberg/Island Conservation/Flickr

Scientists pan proposal to open pristine Pacific islands to fishing

Marine scientists are warning that if the Trump administration rescinds fishing protections around eight Pacific islands, the United States will lose one of its best laboratories for measuring how a warming climate affects marine life.

“We need baselines,” says Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in Honolulu. “We need pristine reefs to see what we’ve lost elsewhere, to better manage damaged reefs and to isolate the effects of climate change.”

A proposal from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, leaked to The Washington Post last week, argues that regulations on waters around the islands—Howland, Baker, Johnston, Wake, Jarvis, Palmyra, Rose, and Kingman Reef—“should be amended ... to allow commercial fishing.” 

The islands “are one of the great natural treasures of the world,” says Callum Roberts, a marine ecologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom. “It’s hard to find words adequate to express my level of dismay at this abject betrayal of present and future generations.”

In 2009, President George W. Bush designated the islands, lying south of the Hawaiian chain, as national monuments. All but Wake, which hosts a military base, were already National Wildlife Refuges before attaining that status. As refuges, commercial fishing is banned within 12 nautical miles, which preserved the health of the reefs even in the face of rising temperatures. In the rest of the islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone—waters out to 200 miles from shore—they were fished by long-line tuna boats from Hawaii.

Bush’s designation banned fishing within 50 nautical miles of shore; in 2014, President Barack Obama extended the ban to 200 miles for Wake, Johnston, and Jarvis. President Donald Trump is expected to try to change the rules by executive order or by a new Antiquities Act proclamation. Any such move will be challenged in court, says Michael Gravitz, director of policy and legislation at the nonprofit Marine Conservation Institute in Washington, D.C.

With warmer equatorial waters reducing plankton abundance and spurring many fish species, notably bigeye and skipjack tuna, to migrate toward the poles, the waters around Wake and Johnston, 1600 kilometers north of the equator, “are precisely where you want to have a protected area,” says Robert Richmond of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. He argues that “the islands have all the right criteria” —abundant nutrients running off the islands, for instance—to replenish the overfished bigeye tuna, which is down to 16% of its estimated population before industrial fishing began.

Zinke’s recommendations don’t specify whether fishers could operate within 12 miles of the shore, which would contravene National Wildlife Refuge rules. But the return of commercial fishers—especially long-line tuna boats—outside the 12-mile zone is bad enough, says Richmond, who predicts a heavy toll on sharks as well as tunas, as the bycatch rate is one shark for every two tunas.

One of the monument islands, Palmyra, is a staging ground for climate and marine researchers. Located in the rainy Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, it may be the only pristine tropical island in the world with a runway, a field station, and enough lab facilities for scientists to study its ecosystem for months at a time.

When Jennifer Caselle heard about the recommendations, “I was horrified,” she says. A reef biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who runs the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium, Caselle says having fishing boats catching reef sharks within 12 miles of the island would throw off kilter what is now a rare predator-dominated ecosystem.

One high-profile discovery at Palmyra is how rain washes nitrogen-rich droppings from the island’s abundant seabird colonies into the sea, where the nutrients create algal blooms. The blooms, in turn, attract plankton, a favorite prey of manta rays. The study found that in parts of the island where imported palms replaced native trees, the ecosystem unraveled: Seabirds did not nest in the palms and in the absence of algal blooms, the manta rays migrated elsewhere.

“Secretary Zinke is giving Trump truly awful advice,” asserts John Hocevar, director of oceans campaigns at Greenpeace in Washington, D.C. “The science is clearer than ever that climate change is killing our coral reefs and that industrial fishing has had a huge impact on marine ecosystems that extends far beyond the fish they target.”