Johnson and Villagomez: More Work Needed on MPAs

Some of the Indigenous scientists from Saipan and Guam on a zoom call to discuss MPAs and OECMs in the Mariana Islands

Dr. Steven Mana‘oakamai Johnson and I published a peer reviewed paper this summer, "Assessing the quantity and quality of marine protected areas in the Mariana Islands."  We later published this op-ed in the Pacific Daily News to communicate our findings to the communities back home.  This was the first paper I've done with Dr. Mana‘oakamai Johnson.  We're both from Saipan, and Steve's grandfather Herb Soll gave my late father, Ramon Garrido Villagomez, his first job working for the Public Defender's office in Saipan.  Our families have worked together for three generations now, and I think that is pretty cool.

The waters surrounding the Mariana Islands have some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the United States. We are surrounded by migrating whales and turtles, coral reefs and hundreds of species of fish, some found nowhere else on the planet.

The iconic Marianas Trench, the deepest ocean trench yet discovered, lies in our backyard. For more than three thousand years our islands have been home to CHamoru people who hold and practice Indigenous knowledge and values. This knowledge helped our people feed their families and protect their land and ocean for generations.

Marine protected areas
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a modern scientific tool that play an important part in protecting ecologically diverse areas, improving fish stocks, and hedging against the effects of climate change by regulating the amount and type of human activities allowed within a certain area. Those in the Marianas region are vast spatially, but management-wise, there is a lot more work to be done.

Among the current challenges facing MPA management includes overlapping and contested jurisdictional authority, which prevents one government agency from fully taking responsibility for active management. Territorial and federal natural resource agencies must increase collaboration to improve MPA effectiveness and ensure the Marianas region maintains its proud fishing tradition and protects our natural oceanic heritage.

Our new peer-reviewed scientific article, “Assessing the quantity and quality of marine protected areas in the Mariana Islands” assesses the 18 federal and territorial managed MPAs in our region against an international framework called the MPA Guide. The MPA Guide looks at protected areas in terms of their level of protection and stage of implementation. When understood in the context of on-the-ground social, cultural, and economic conditions, this guide can help government managers better predict the effectiveness and outcomes of MPAs in a given region.

Based on this research, we identified four key takeaways:

1. The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument has had limited effectiveness,
2. MPA management in the region is complex.
3. The managerial capacity of the region has potential.
4. New, emerging conservation tools may better suit the Marianas region.

Limited effectiveness
The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, a very large federally managed protected area designated in 2009, is located in the federal waters surrounding the far north and the submerged lands of the Mariana Trench. It was designed to serve a key role in protecting biodiversity and Indigenous cultural practices. It is also controversial for some in our islands due to its being designated through federal processes and the lack of implementation.

The monument is made up of three management units: The Islands Unit, Mariana Trench National Wildlife Refuge, and Mariana Arc of Fire National Wildlife Refuge. While some studies classify all three units of the monument as fully protected, two of the three monument units are incompatible with global MPA standards, mainly due to the lack of fishing restrictions in the two national wildlife refuges.

Currently, these two monument units prohibit extractive activities such as deep-sea mining on the seafloor bed. However, managed fisheries are permitted in the water column above the seafloor bed. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature states that dividing conservation into these vertical categories limits biodiversity conservation. We assess the Islands Unit as highly protected, meaning it is well-designed — it has the appropriate rules to support biodiversity conservation — but it has yet to be implemented and lacks a final published management plan.

Regional MPA management complex
The total area of MPAs in the Mariana Islands totals about 250,000 square kilometers, or about 25.4 percent of our combined exclusive economic zones (EEZs; 200 nautical miles from shore), where fishing is regulated by the US federal government. In the territorial waters (12 nautical miles from shore), however, only 0.83 percent of Guam, and, excluding the monument, only 0.07 percent of the Northern Mariana Islands’ territorial waters are in MPAs.

Strong protections, large spatial area, and dedicated management are conditions that none of these MPAs meet all at once. The lack of all three conditions being met is exacerbated by the fact that many of these areas are contested due to overlapping and entangled management authority.

The quality of marine conservation in the 18 MPAs also depends greatly on whether they lie within territorial waters or within the national EEZ. Simply put, the nearshore, territorial MPAs are not big, but they are well designed and actively managed. The offshore federal MPAs are large but lack local staff, funding, and management plans to implement the protections. Two of the three monument units are therefore incompatible with global MPA standards.

There is growing scientific evidence that MPAs have a higher likelihood of fulfilling its mission and achieving biodiverse outcomes when they are provided with adequate staffing, consistent monitoring, official management plans, and long-term financial commitments. Currently, all of the smaller, coastal MPAs in the region are “actively managed,” but the level of protection for each MPA varies.

Nevertheless, the MPAs in our region have the potential to meet the MPA Guide conditions because of the region’s high managerial capacity. For example, many of the conservation efforts in the Northern Mariana Islands are supported by $6.1 million dollars in federal grants, demonstrating that the region has the financial capacity to support more proactive management. An audit of current marine conservation funding could signal how to support more robust conservation in the future.

Emerging conservation tools
While MPAs are a common and popular way to manage biodiversity, EEZs may also act as an “other effective area-based conservation measure.” There is growing evidence that when EEZs were designated by governments in the 1980s they may have reduced or eliminated foreign fishing in some isolated regions across the world. It is possible that when no foreign or domestic fishing occurs in an area, as is the case around Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, an EEZ may act as a de facto MPA.

The lack of offshore industrial fisheries in our waters may have resulted in one of the last unfished wildernesses on the planet. Local and federal leaders should assess historical fisheries in the region and look for ways the federal and territorial governments can provide management and resources to balance a thriving and proud fishing tradition with ongoing conservation efforts.

Encouragingly, the area has the financial capacity for better management in the future. An audit of current marine conservation funding, particularly focused on MPAs, could provide our government leaders with a better sense of how to provide more effective conservation in the future with the funds available.

Future studies should focus on the social, ecological, and climate factors to potentially provide resource managers with a greater understanding of protected area effectiveness. Overall, the region should engage in a “whole ocean approach” to alleviate some of the jurisdictional problems that come from area-based conservation.

Steven Mana‘oakamai Johnson (he/him/‘oia) is a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) scholar at Cornell University and Angelo O. Villagomez (he/him/låhi) is a CHamoru ocean advocate with the Center for American Progress. Both are from the island of Saipan.


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