BOOK REVIEW | U.S. Pacific Islanders and the Sea: A History of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (1976 – 2020)

BOOK REVIEW | U.S. Pacific Islanders and the Sea: A History of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (1976 – 2020)


This book is long overdue. It is the first and, to my knowledge, the only comprehensive natural resource study of modern open ocean fisheries in the US Pacific. In the book, the authors examine in detail the far-reaching effects of the 1976 Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (FCMA) from its origins to the present day. The book examines each of the major fisheries from tuna to billfish to groundfish and lobsters. It tells the story of the evolving science, politics, and indigenous identity people through the eyes of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, one of eight created by the FCMA throughout the United States.

In the Western Pacific, the FCMA produced a 200-mile fishery zone also known as an Exclusive Economic Zone around the State of Hawaii, the Territory of American Samoa, the Territory of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the six small remote US Pacific Islands of Palmyra, Wake, Howland, Baker, Jarvis, and Kingman Reef.

It also produced nearly 40 years of conflict, legal challenges, and scientific achievements as council members sought to apportion the fish and resources within this vast area among competing interests. The council was caught between the tuna industry, which wanted no regulations, and predominantly US mainland environmentalists, who sought to close the entire area for everything but sanctuaries and big-game-fish tournaments. While fighting those battles, the council had to address the growing and pressing needs of the indigenous people of the area whose interests and needs were often completely different from those of the US mainlanders who set US fishery policy in Washington, DC, and California.

The story of that struggle to create equity for indigenous peoples while at the same time working to protect endangered species within the US zone was complicated by an existential threat from outside invaders. Each year, vast Asian pirate fishing fleets who follow no rules poked at the edge of the US zone, an area so great there was – and still is – a need for the US Coast Guard to patrol the area and enforce the rules.

I personally experienced that part of the battle when I left the National Marine Fisheries Service and became the US Fisheries Attaché in Japan. This book is a compelling story written in a succinct and readable manner. It describes the politics and the science of one of the greatest experiments ever taken in fisheries management – the FCMA.

This book was a pleasure to read because it has about 100 photos of the people involved and dozens of easy to read tables, figures, and illustrations. The book covers such a wide scope of fishery management that its contents can literally be described as being “encyclopaedic”.

Authors: Michael Markrich & Sylvia Spalding

Available from Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council

Email: [email protected]

It is a treat to read a report of a successful, long-term government project that is actually generous, useful and not self-serving and unthinkingly political. Long-term readers of Baird Maritime will be well aware of some of the valuable work of the NOAA-affiliated WPRFMC from the writings of our occasional columnist, the legendary Bob Iversen.

Bob, a former marine biologist, naval officer and fisheries diplomat, was closely involved with the program in its early days. His many yarns have whetted our appetites for more about its activities in this romantic but logistically difficult part of the world. This very comprehensive and interesting report fills in the gaps by comprehensively describing the first 44 years of the project.

The United States’ presence in the Pacific, of course, covers a lot more ground than just the Hawaiian Islands. There is Samoa, for example, and Guam and much of Micronesia. They are places that are either US possessions or where considerable American assistance is given.

Naturally, much of that support focuses on commercial fishing, which is so important to the island economies and their way of life. Despite the conventional wisdom that tells us that Americans are culturally insensitive, this detailed and well-illustrated book shows us the opposite. The WPRFMC program has made considerable efforts to be both altruistic and sensitive to local Pacific islands cultures.

The enthusiasm of the project’s participants for this project comes across very clearly in this report. It is obvious that they “whistled while they worked”. The scientists and technicians involved loved their work and that, obviously, made their efforts and their connections with the island people all the more effective.

This is a very valuable textbook that shows the right way to give government aid.

– Dr Neil Baird

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Bob Iversen

Bob Iversen is a retired Hawaii fishery biologist who spent 40 years studying tuna and other fish in the tropical Pacific Ocean. He is a former officer in the US Navy, and initiated the “mental health of seafarers” movement that has now taken off worldwide.