Decolonize the Pacific Remote Islands


I've been advocating for marine monuments and national marine sanctuaries in the US Pacific territories since 2007.  
I've literally been there since the beginning, as I was seated about 10 feet away from George W. Bush when he designated the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in 2009.   I am also the conservation chair for the  Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument Community Group, founded the Friends of the Mariana Trench, and wrote the nomination for the erstwhile Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary.  

I was involved in efforts to expand the Pacific Remote Islands in 2014 and Papahanaumokuakea in 2016.  But I was not involved in the 2022 effort to ask President Biden to expand the Pacific Remote Islands using the Antiquities Act (although I did review some of their materials ahead of launching their campaign), nor was I involved in nominating the area as a proposed national marine sanctuary.

National marine sanctuaries are designated with a public process, so in May 2023 I drafted a public comment during the public scoping period for the proposed Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary based on my research and experience.  My comments called on the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to engage with the US Pacific territories and to provide funding to enable their participation.  In my comment I shared 30 news stories that mostly highlighted the opposition of territorial leaders to the proposed sanctuary.  As someone who has dedicated most of my professional life protecting these places, I offered several pathways towards bringing the territories into the fold, including creating a pre-designation advisory committee that included representation of Micronesian and Samoan cultural experts and territorial governments; headquartering the proposed sanctuary in the territories instead of Hawaii; prioritizing the territories with jobs, programs, and funding; explaining to territorial communities the difference between monuments and sanctuaries, along with their respective costs and benefits; and creating a fund that would ensure funding would make its may to the territories, with funds to be dispersed under co-management agreements.

I received positive feedback on my comments from friends and colleagues in the territories.  A retired government employee on Guam wrote:
Your draft comments are outstanding! ONMS had a public meeting here on Guam last night. Each speaker was limited to three minutes. Most local commentators emphasized the lack of indigenous stakeholders power to influence the US decisions. They spontaneously expressed their feelings about lack of CHamoru (Guam spelling) and Micronesian influence on the PRIA Sanctuary proposal. I expect indigenous involvement and islander co-management will be a main issue at other hearings. I got the impression that the group that traveled from Hawaii for the PRI Coalition, including indigenous islanders, was not aware of the facts and issues that you have covered so well.  
That probably would have been the end of my writing about the Pacific Remote Islands, but over the summer I came across this tweet from Dr. Jessica Hernandez, author of the book Fresh Banana Leaves: 


I thought my comments could form the outline of a great piece discussing Indigenous Peoples & Environmental Justice in the Pacific Islands, so I spent the next months expanding on and refining some of my ideas.  I also wanted to make it crystal clear that I am coming from a place of healing and moving forward, so I invited my Native Hawaiian colleague and friend Dr. Steven Mana'oakamai Johnson to join me as a co-author.  Long story short, we went through the peer-review process and late last month my first first-author paper published, titled, "Disavowing the Doctrine of Discovery: Indigenous Healing, Decolonization, and Implications for Environmental Justice in the Pacific Remote Islands Area."

The average peer reviewed paper is read by 10 people, so we also published a press release and an op-ed to highlight our main arguments.  The paper was also covered in a story in Grist.  We end our paper with 5 recommendations, which I share here in the hopes that the focus can remain on a path forward:
  1. Follow the best practices of working with Indigenous communities and seek to co-create a proposal for conservation in the Pacific Remote Islands between the U.S. territories and Hawaii, and possibly members of the Micronesian and Samoan diaspora living in Hawaii. The Biden administration should consult with governments and communities in the territories, and be open to recommendations the Hawaiian advocates did not consider.
  2. Move sanctuary and other natural resource management decision-making power out of Hawaii and back to the territories, both in terms of where full-time employees are located, and with co-management or co-stewardship agreements.
  3. Prioritize the U.S. Pacific territories with jobs, programs, and funding, and consider headquartering the proposed sanctuary in one of the U.S. Pacific territories. In particular, efforts should be made to engage the Indigenous American Samoan, Chamorro, and Micronesian peoples and territorial governments who are long-time stewards and owners of these resources. This would increase access for several Indigenous people to engage in natural resource management and is in line with the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative.
  4. Going further, the federal government should engage with territorial governments to determine the unique needs their citizens have when it comes to ocean conservation. There are several models of consultation being used in the United States today and the federal and territorial governments could work together to figure out which one, or if something totally different, would work to improve communication and relationships between the governments. For example, the Biden administration recently announced a federal policy establishing a consultation policy with Native Hawaiians and Representative Grijalva has introduced legislation that would establish special advisors for insular areas in each executive department. In addition, the federal government uses other models to engage with Native people in Alaska and the contiguous United States (i.e. the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area), and these models of consultation should be explored to determine the most appropriate way to engage with Indigenous Pacific Islanders.
  5. NOAA should consider creating a fund or endowment, similar to the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, to ensure that sanctuary jobs, programs, and funding make their way to front-line communities in the U.S. Pacific territories, in line with the Justice40 initiative. A similar fund was created for designations of Tristan da Cunha in 2021 and Niue in 2023, with seed funding from several philanthropic partners. In addition, in line with Justice40, 40% of funding available for the proposed sanctuary should go into the fund, and through territorial co-management agreements, local governments could determine how this funding is used to support sanctuary projects and make investments in future Indigenous Pacific Islander scientists and leaders.
The public scoping period for the proposed sanctuary ended in June 2023, and since that time, federal officials have been addressing the scoping comments they received and drafting a management plan.  According to the Spring 2024 Unified Agenda, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is scheduled for September 2024.

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