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DMWR office mobbed by “fishermen” applying for CARES Act funding

Crowd with umbrellas waiting at DMWR gate
You have to prove you’re a ‘fisher’ — and a legal resident

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — People have been crowding the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) now located at the old TAOA Office in Pago Pago to apply for funding under the CARES Act and the agency is questioning the validity of many of the claims. The funding is available for fishery type businesses and families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, who depend on fishing for their livelihood.

The DMWR reports it has already denied some of the applications after it was determined that they do not meet the requirements and this was confirmed by DMWR representative, Maria Vaofanua, during an exclusive interview with Samoa News last week.

“There are applicants we’ve already denied because we know that they’re not fishermen. For example, there are people rolling in on wheelchairs, the elderly and many others we easily determine that they can’t go out fishing, but we believe that the reason why they came here is the fact that they need money,” Vaofanua said.

According to Vaofanua, the DMWR with assistance from NOAA and the Pacific States Marine Commission received $2.5 million from the 2020 CARES Act to assist Samoan fisheries affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The financial assistance covers eligible businesses, fish dealers; fishing charters and fish processors.

“We also have categories for Subsistence Fisheries or Cultural Fishers (Individuals) and these are fishermen who fish to feed and support their family. These are the people who go out fishing and bring fish home to feed their family but do not sell it for money,” Vaofanua explained.

Vaofanua said that in American Samoa many families depend on the sea for food and a living. Some families have a fishing vessel where they go out fishing with the purpose of selling fish to earn money. And, there are also families who solely depend on seafood for their daily meals.

 “Right now, we have received well over 600 applications from local fishermen applying for funding to assist their families and as soon as the [application process] closes on Dec. 11, the second phrase of the process begins — which is reviewing all the applications to make sure they meet all the requirements and to decide which application to approve and which applications to deny.”

For those whose applications are denied, there is a “7 business day appeal process” where you can file an appeal if you don’t agree with the decision DMWR made.

Once the applications are reviewed, the next step is to scan all the approved applications and send them off island and from there, the checks will be cut and sent directly to each fisherman’s mail box.

“I want to clear this issue so that the public will understand our role and how the program operates. DMWR will never handle any money related to this program. All we do is received the applications, screen them and send them off island,” Vaofanua explained.

When asked by Samoa News who is eligible under the program, Vaofanua explained that US Nationals, US Citizens and all foreigners with legal immigration status are eligible.

She further stated that one of the requirements for each applicant is to provide proof of legal residency — including an immigration ID, driver’s license, and proof that you’re 18 years old and up.

She said DMWR is also advising members of the public to stop spreading false rumors regarding the program. If you need the correct information about the program, contact or visit the local DMWR office for more information.

“There are people spreading rumors that the program is for everyone as long you’re a legal resident of the territory, then you’re eligible. The fact of the matter is, not everybody is eligible, only those who are actually fishermen, who go out and fish to feed their family, are eligible,” Vaofanua explained.

When asked how DMWR determines who the real fishermen are, Vaofanua explained that when you come to submit your application, the employees of DMWR will ask a few questions to test your knowledge about fishing.

“Some of the questions our staff will ask you is to explain what type of fishing you usually do to feed your family, explain the tools you use and what are some of the methods you use for fishing,” she said.

The DMWR rep said that there are applications that were denied because the applicants failed to explain what type of fishing they do to feed their family.

“Some of these people when asked about the type of fishing they do to feed their family, they reply, fish. And when asked what method they used to catch fish for their family, they just reply, swimming,” Vaofanua said, adding that answers from these applicants proved the fact that they are not fishermen.

Each person needs to bring in his/ her own application and be prepared to answer questions about being a fisherman, she cautioned.

For those people who fish to feed their family and haven’t submitted an application, you need to submit a signed letter telling the DMWR that you’re a fisherman who goes out fishing to feed your family, and ever since the coronavirus lockdown was enforced in the territory, your family has faced food shortages because you’re no longer going out fishing.

Other documents the applicants need to provide include two support letters from two people to confirm that you’re a fisherman and you’re no longer going out fishing to feed your family due to the lockdown from the coronavirus.

According to Vaofanua, about 7 fishing businesses had already submitted their applications, aside from over 600 applications received from local fishermen.

Local fisherman under the “Cultural Fisher” will receive $1,000 for financial assistance while the amount for the fishing businesses will be higher.

Vaofanua stated that the program started in Nov. 09, 2020 and the period for applications will expire on Dec. 11, 2020 — which is Friday of this week.