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  • How Wespac almost exterminated leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific


    As large as a Volkswagen Beetle, leatherback sea turtles weigh up to 2,000 pounds and measure 9 feet in length. They are the largest, deepest diving and most wide-ranging of the seven species of sea turtle in the Pacific. Born on the beaches of Mexico, Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea, the leatherbacks have been known to travel thousands to the chilly waters off Oregon and Washington to feed on jellyfish. One study estimated that they consume their body weight in jellyfish per day.

    In September 2003, eight months after Sean Martin, Wespac’s current chairman, was appointed to the Wespac council, he voted in favor of a rule that 1) reopened swordfish longlining in the Pacific, 2) allowed for the renewed killing of sea turtles, and 3) filled up his pocketbook.

    On Martin’s motion, the measure, which passed by a vote of 8-5, reopened a swordfish longline fishery that had been closed in 1999 by order of a federal judge to protect the leatherbacks and a close cousin, the loggerhead sea turtle. During the discussion, one Wespac member suggested Martin’s act of voting violated the council's conflict of interest rules. But that suggestion was shot down when Wespac’s longtime executive director, Rose M. “Kitty” Simonds, said Martin’s vote was permissible, on advice of the Wespac attorney.

    “It's a big conflict of interest,” countered Linda Paul, an attorney with the Hawai`i Audubon Society. “Martin had no business making the motion or voting for it. This council is industry-controlled, managed by short-term economic interests.”

    “The council is rife with conflicts of interest,” said Gaffney, the sports fisherman who later joined the Wespac board. “That is one of the reasons it’s been such a failure.”

    The vote came some 23 years after the longline industry began fishing aggressively in the central Pacific near Hawaii. In addition to swordfish, longliners mainly targeted large tuna, sailfish, marlin, mahimahi and wahoo. Swordfish, a highly migratory predator characterized by a long spear at the end of its nose, can weigh over 1,000 pounds. Its oily meat is prized as a delicacy at top-shelf restaurants around the world.

    Previously, in the 1970s, longline vessels had decimated the Atlantic Ocean’s swordfish population, and was moving on to feast on the abundant population in the Pacific.

    The number of boats in Hawaii’s fleet of longliners quadrupled between 1987 and 1990. Annual landings of swordfish reported at the docks in Honolulu swelled from nothing in 1980 to 13.2 million pounds by the end of the decade, worth $21 million.

    Jim Cook and Sean Martin owned two of the 164 swordfish longline permits in Hawai`i. By the early 1990s, Hawaii longliners were taking about 45 percent of the total swordfish catch from Hawaii to Japan. The remainder were snared by foreign fleets.

    The decline of the Pacific Ocean leatherback population mirrored the dramatic growth in Hawaii’s commercial longline fishing industry.

    In 1980, scientists estimated the Pacific's female leatherback sea turtle population at 91,000. But soon after, that number dropped precipitously, said Dr. Scott Eckert, chairman of NOAA’s Pacific Sea Turtle Recovery Team, By 1982, Wespac’s new longline swordfish fisheries were capturing and killing leatherbacks at an alarming rate.

    Longline and gill-net fisheries in the Pacific killed at least 1,500 female leatherbacks per year in the 1990s, according to “conservative estimates” published by the British scientific journal Nature. It said “a long-lived species like this cannot withstand such high rates” of fishing mortality. The vessels mainly responsible for this destruction, Nature specified, included Asian and Central and South American boats, as well as the fleet in Hawaii’s longline fishery – the Wespac-managed fishery that employed Sean Martin and Jim Cook.

    At the time, the Mexican population of leatherbacks, the world’s most abundant, was dropping by 22 percent each year.

    “Their slide toward extinction has been the most rapid decline for any significant large vertebrate population in history,” Eckert said.

    Posted by Cascadia Times on 06/30/11
  • 6/4/11
  • To Catch a Poacher


    The dictionary definition of poaching is to hunt or kill wildlife illegally. Under federal law, violations can result in fines or jail time.

    In the Pacific Ocean, catching a poacher in the act is difficult to do. The planet’s largest ocean is, to say the least, vast. Law enforcement has hundreds of millions of square miles to patrol, and it’s easy for a poacher to hide.

    It’s a wonder any get caught, especially high profile poachers like Sean Martin and Jim Cook of Honolulu, who are partners in several successful commercial fishing ventures in Hawaii and who have been chairmen of a federal fishing management council, Wespac, that helps regulate commercial fishing in American waters from Hawaii to the Mariana Islands. As members of the federal fishery management council, they violated regulations that they helped to write.

    As reported by the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement in Long Beach, Calif., the most recent of these poaching cases was settled in February 2004, eight months after Martin came on the council in 2003. (Martin has been the council’s chairman since 2007. Cook served a stint as council chairman in the 1990s).

    The case began in February 2003, when a longline boat owned by Martin and Cook was caught fishing in closed waters off the Main Hawaiian Islands. Cook and Martin agreed to settle the case for $7,000. As a result of this conviction, Cook and Martin agreed to pay another $1,000 civil penalty that had been assessed but suspended in a previous case. The repeat violation triggered the additional penalty.

    But this new violation did not automatically disqualify either man from serving on the federal fishing council. Wespac rules allow council members to continue on the council even after poaching convictions. In other words, no number of poaching convictions is enough to disqualify any person from serving.

    The other cases involving Cook, Martin or their companies included cases that occurred in:

    ·                   December 2001, when the Mariah, a longline vessel owned by Vessel Management Associates, a company owned by Martin and Cook, failed to submit its fishing log book in a timely manner. The company and the vessel’s operator, Peter A. Webster, paid a $500 civil penalty.

    ·                     March 2001, when NOAA cited Webster and Vessel Management Associates for illegal longline fishing and for falsifying its logbooks. This case also involved the Mariah. In a settlement agreement signed by Webster and Sean Martin, they agreed to pay a $3,000 civil penalty. Another $2,000 penalty was suspended if the respondents committed no further violations of federal fishing laws for five years.

    ·                     February 1999, when the longline vessel Northern Venture, owned by Vessel Management Associates and operated by Jerry Ray, was cited for illegally fishing within a closed area near the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In a settlement agreement signed by Martin, a $10,000 civil penalty was assessed.

    ·                    August 1992, when a vessel owned by Cook and Martin, and operated by Ed Timoney (husband of a former Wespac council member, Timm Timoney), was cited for illegal lobster fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In this incident, the vessel Petite One, owned by CMK Inc., a company owned by Cook, Martin and a third partner, was caught with about 616 undersized spiny lobsters, 292 undersized slipper lobsters and 562 female lobsters carrying eggs. They failed to maintain an accurate and complete daily lobster catch report and failed to accurately record required information in the ship’s logbook. They were fined $40,000 and paid a reduced penalty of $29,500. 

    ·                    This violation occurred at a time when the lobster population was in a steep, permanent decline in Hawaii. The highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal, thought to rely on lobster for a significant part of its diet, was also tumbling in a steep decline. Many young monk seals at the time were found to be starving to death.

    ·                    May 1991, Cook and Robert Harstad, owner and operator, respectively, of the longline vessel Kaimi, were fishing illegally for and unlawfully in possession of billfish and other associated species without a permit. They paid a civil penalty of $1,000.

    Interestingly enough, ignorance of the boundaries of fishing zones may not have been an issue in these cases. Martin and Cook own a state of the art vessel monitoring “war room” with computer screens that tracks, in real time, the exact location of each of their vessels. They knew what they were doing and where they were doing it.

    “They were like thieves in the night,” said Carol Cox, a special agent with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

    “To me,” says Paul Achitoff, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice in Honolulu, “they are just a bunch of pirates, lining their pockets on the public teat.”


    Posted by Cascadia Times on 06/04/11
  • 6/3/11
  • Threats to an Exotic Web of Life



    By 21st Century standards, the magnificent coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, America’s newest national monument, occupy a unique ecological niche. One of the world’s largest marine wildlife reserves, this largely uninhabited northernmost segment of the Hawaiian archipelago represents the last intact fully functional marine ecosystem still left on earth and is home to the northernmost coral reefs on the planet.

    The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have nurtured an exotic web of life for millions of years. Because of their isolated location — they are further from continents than any other islands on earth — life evolved on its own terms.

    The islands are home to 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which are endemic —found only in Hawai`i. Comprised of small islands, atolls, submerged banks and reefs, the archipelago also hosts a bewildering array of birds, fish, coral, sea turtles and marine mammals — including the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal and the iconic green sea turtle.

    In the Hawaiian Archipelago, of which the northwestern islands are a part, about 25 percent of all species occur nowhere else in the world. While the Main Hawaiian Islands have been dramatically altered by humans, many people are only vaguely aware that the northwestern segment even exists. These islands don’t appear on many maps of Hawaii. Human access to the 1,200-mile Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (about the distance from Seattle to San Diego) has never been easy.

    However, “21st Century standards” is a low bar, given how humans have tainted every other place on Earth, and have made the effort to despoil this one as well. Besides the direct assault by commercial enterprise to extract the islands’ finite natural resources, the unbending forces unleashed by human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide are hammering the islands in at least four different ways and are likely to do lasting damage.

    Some of the lower-flung islands in the archipelago are likely to vanish beneath the waves within a few decades, as a result of carbon-triggered climate changes that already are lifting sea levels faster than scientists imagined just a few years ago. Adding sand to lift the islands to a greater elevation has been suggested as a possible solution, but it is no answer to three other global warming-related crises that loom ahead:

    First, carbon dioxide emissions are creating oceanic “dead zones” that could be devoid of marine wildlife for thousands of years.

    Second, these emissions are bleaching coral reefs around the world by increasing the acidity of ocean waters, potentially leading to a mass extinction of marine wildlife. Coral reefs in the three northernmost islands — Kure, Midway and Pearl and Hermes — suffered bleaching in 2002. When coral polyps are stressed by temperatures that exceed their tolerance level, they can lose their algae (which provide pigment), turn white, and die.

    Finally, carbon emissions they have triggered a dramatic decline in phytoplankton, the foundation of the marine food web. Around the time these islands slide forever beneath the rising seas, key parts of the beautiful coral reef ecosystem will be crumbling away under the heavy weight of a polluted, warming planet.

    Posted by Cascadia Times on 06/03/11
  • 6/2/11
  • Poachers in Paradise



    Sean Martin and Jim Cook, longtime members of Wespac, a federal council that manages Pacific Ocean fisheries, helped to regulate commercial fisheries in Hawaii. As commercial fishermen themselves, some of their decisions also benefitted them financially, Critics of the system say that’s not ethical, but it’s not illegal.

    But Martin and Cook have been known to bend the samre fishing rules they helped to write, to the point of breaking them. From 1991 to 2004, they were prosecuted six times by NOAA Fisheries for violating those fishing regulations, and on each occasion were convicted and paid a fine.

    By any definitionn, this is “poaching” and that is illegal.

    The most recent of these poaching cases was settled in February 2004, eight months after Martin came onto the council. The case originated in February 2003, when a longline boat owned by Vessel Management Associates, a company Martin and Cook jointly control that owns and manages six commercial fishing boats, was caught fishing in closed waters off the Main Hawaiian Islands. Cook and Martin agreed to settle the case for $7,000, according to NOAA Fisheries. As a result of this conviction, Cook and Martin agreed to pay another $1,000 civil penalty that had been assessed but suspended in a previous case. The repeat violation triggered the additional penalty.

    But these violations did not automatically disqualify either man from serving on the Wespac board. Wespac rules allow council members to continue serving on the council even after poaching convictions.  In other words, no number of poaching convictions is enough to disqualify any person from serving. 

    Posted by Cascadia Times on 06/02/11
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