2021 Capitol Hill Ocean Week Remarks

After talking about near shore, smaller protected areas off the West Coast, I will take you further west into the Pacific ocean, home of the largest offshore marine protected areas on the planet.

Hello everyone, My name is Angelo Villagomez, I am a Native Pacific Islander, descended from voyagers, raised within a culture whose existence is dependent on the bounty of the ocean, but trained in the scientific method of Western scientists.

If you are tweeting this conference, please use the hashtag CHOW 2021, and we have one just for our session: hashtag Diverse Ocean. You can tag me with At Tao Tao Tasi if you have any questions or comments, and I will follow up with you afterwards

The Pacific Islands seem isolated and distant to many people across the world. But from the perspective of my people, the Chamorro people, the Native inhabitants of the Mariana Islands, the Pacific Ocean isn’t the middle of nowhere. It is the center of everything and it connects us all.

I am here to tell you the story of how Hawaiians and Chamorros, the Indigenous residents and longtime owners and stewards of islands claimed by the United States, became champions for vast protected areas stretching across nearly 3 million square kilometers of wild and untamed Pacific Ocean, this is an area larger than all of Alaska and Texas and California COMBINED. The land area, meanwhile, could all fit within the borders of Washington, DC.

I have worked on protected areas in the American Pacific for the last 15 years. I led the grassroot efforts to designate and named the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, worked with scientists and Native Hawaiians to help make the case for the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, and today represent the conservation community on the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument advisory group. And I’d also like to bring attention to the large protected area in American Samoa, but I won’t be speaking about it because I have no experience there. These regions are home to whales, turtles, sharks, corals, and hundreds of known species of fish. There is a diversity of habitats from volcanoes above and below the water, to reefs, atolls, undersea canyons, and the deepest ocean trench on the planet. What may be even more exciting is the unknown life and discoveries waiting to happen in these places. Some studies suggest as many as 10 million undiscovered species in the unknown reaches of the ocean

Scientists have recalibrated their sense of what a healthy ocean should look like because of these protected areas. Studies of the fish species around Palmyra Atoll challenged our assumption of what “shark infested” waters really means. When left alone, free from fishing, the numbers of large apex predators – groupers, sharks, snappers, and jacks – is exponentially larger than on islands where fishing occurs. Areas like Palmyra Atoll, which remain untouched and free from fishing, provide a modern reference point for a healthy ocean. These studies, and others like them, form the basis for the scientific knowledge that marine protected areas result in more diverse, healthy, and abundant populations of marine life.

The rugged individualism of the American character is built on the notion of the frontier and wilderness, and most Americans accept without question that our National Parks protect American wild places and heritage, in its many forms. Even if Americans are unable to visit them, just knowing these places exist plays a part in the American identity. The marine monuments play a similar role for the people who call the Pacific Ocean home. We gift to America and the world these national ocean parks, and we see it as our kuleana, our duty and privilege, to be its stewards.

These Pacific monuments were designated after significant Indigenous led Bottom up Grassroots advocacy led to top-down decision making by the president of the united states. Each one was created using the Antiquities Act, the century old law used by nearly every American president to protect our shared scientific and cultural heritage. Chamorros and Hawaiians – and Americans of all backgrounds – wrote letters, signed petitions, attended meetings, and even wrote songs about the need to protect these ocean areas.

These monuments were not designated without controversy. Decisions made in Washington, DC grow increasingly unpopular the further west one travels – and no state is further west than Hawaii – and the territories to the west of Hawaii do not even have a vote in congress or the power to vote for the president.

Some of the criticism was undeserved, however. And I would like to bring attention to that. The industrial fishing fleets based in Honolulu were particularly vocal in their opposition, but in the years since designation, studies out of the University of Hawaii have provided strong evidence that these monuments have improved tuna fisheries in the region. The United States is a shining example of how our ocean can support the world’s best managed fisheries and some of the most highly protected ocean sanctuaries at the same time. To quote president George W. Bush, “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully”

I am reminded that when our ancestors landed on the islands where our people live now, they must have found abundance like that which today only exists on these isolated islands. For most native people, nature includes people, and we are kin to nature. Another way to understand these islands and their surrounding waters are as time capsules -- scientific laboratories and cultural artifacts that act as windows into the time before we fished the ocean with the help of satellites. They are a reminder of what much of the ocean used to look like, and provide hope that with better management and increased protections, what we can restore the ocean to for future generations.

Thank you, mahalo, and si yu’us ma’ase

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