Governor Leon Guerrero, the 36th Guam Legislature and the Guam Department of Agriculture (DOAG) submitted comments on May 26, 2021 in response to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed rule to designate coral critical habitat around all of Guam’s territorial waters.
The proposed rule included a map that illustrated all of Guam’s shores to 40 meters (131 feet), excluding Department of Defense managed shores and waters, that would be designated as coral critical habitat. To those who protect natural resources, this sounds like a good idea, until it is understood what the designation entails.
A coral critical habitat designation would mean that every federal agency, or federally funded project, conducting work in that area would be required to consult with NOAA NMFS to have the work approved. Any project in Guam’s nearshore waters (except DOD areas) from shore up to 131 feet would require another layer of permitting bureaucracy.
NMFS stated this would not impact cultural or recreational fishing. DOAG disagreed. In comments submitted, the agency stated work is in progress to reinstall replacement Fish Aggregating Devices (FADS) and Shallow Water Mooring Buoys (SWMS). This is to specifically support the fishing community. With a critical habitat designation, the agency would be required to add an additional permitting clearance requirement to the process which would delay any installation.
Governor Leon Guerrero, senators, and DOAG each call out NMFS for using what they termed “not the best available science” in proposing the designation. With respect to Guam, NFMS used one or two personal communications as part of their “facts” for establishing critical habitat. The communications are from an individual who clearly stated that he was not sure of the species identification. There are over 400 species of coral in Guam’s waters, many of which look extremely similar and the only way to differentiate is by genetic testing. NMFS did not genetically test any of Guam’s coral.
Governor Leon Guerrero wrote, “After substantial discussion with our team of experts, it is clear that this proposed rule was made without the best scientific data available, and of even greater concern, made without any input from or consideration of local regulatory agencies. From the start, this process was flawed.” DOAG Director Chelsa Muna-Brecht added, “It has been a stressful but worthwhile process, having to counter each point in this federal overreach. If left unchallenged, this proposed rule would have dictated nearly every action we tried to take in our local waters and even projects on land. This designation is impacting nearly all of the nearshore territorial waters of Guam, CNMI, and American Samoa yet would impact less than 2% of coral occurrence worldwide for all seven listed species in the three jurisdictions.”
(Guam Department of Agriculture Release)