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Gov against ‘redundant’ federal regulation of Am. Samoa’s coral reefs

Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga
New proposal is example of fed policies made without local consultation

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — While supportive of federal conservation efforts, Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga says he does not support additional federal regulation for coral critical habitat that are already protected under American Samoa law.

“American Samoa is already highly-federally regulated in terms of environmental policies,” said the governor in his argument in his May 26th letter to Paul Doremus, the acting Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries as the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed a rule to designate critical habitat for seven threatened corals in U.S. waters in the Indo-Pacific.

The seven Indo- Pacific corals listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) within U.S. waters in Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), American Samoa, and the Pacific Remote Island Area (PRIA), according to the NMFS notice issued late last year.

NMFS sought public comment, which was extended from early this year, to a deadline of May 26th, following requests from governors and fishery officials of the US Pacific territories.

“I wish to express dissatisfaction on the proposed coral critical habitat designation for American Samoa,” the governor wrote to Doremus. “The proposed designation covers a large area of coral reef habitat and does not reflect the critical habitat of threatened corals.”

Additionally, the “proposed designation was developed without consultation” with relevant local agencies using better and current locally-driven sources of science data. Lemanu complained that this is “yet another, example of proposed federal policies that have not gone through proper vetting, consultation, and input from stakeholders”.

And while he concurs with NMFS on the need to conserve resources and protect threatened and endangered species, “these conservation efforts need to be both practical and beneficial to achieve the desired goals,” the governor pointed out.

He argued that the proposed designation “is redundant with other local and federal regulations.”

Lemanu explained that American Samoa has a local Project Notification and Review System (PNRS) board and follows National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) policies, and relevant Essential Fish Habitat and Endangered Species Act consultations.

Additionally, American Samoa has an established local regulation against coral damage and designated marine protect areas — or MPAs — that protect “our coral reefs” through the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, the National Park of American Samoa, the wildlife refuge, the Rose Atoll National Marine Monument and village marine protected areas.

“The inclusion of large areas of our coral reefs as coral critical habitats will add additional consultation burden to federally-funded projects. This will include critical infrastructure projects and research programs,” he explained. “We foresee that coral critical habitat designation may lead to further loopholes for local development and infrastructure projects.”

“Like the whole process of listing corals under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), this is a waste of taxpayers’ money that otherwise should be directed to more pressing needs and service,” the governor claims.

Lemanu tells the federal agency that the “biggest threat” to American Samoa coral reefs is global climate change and our coral reefs constitute less than 1% of the geographic range of these ESA-listed corals.

And the threats “are beyond our local jurisdiction and designating large areas of our coral reefs as critical habit will not protect these corals,” the governor said and suggested the “need to address global climate change and habitat destruction as threats to these listed at more appropriate levels.”

“We need to develop coral reef conservation that is meaningful, effective and locally-relevant,” Lemanu further suggested and reiterated that while he supports conservation efforts, “I do not support additional federal regulations for coral critical habitat when these protections are covered under local statute.”

According to the governor, American Samoa is fully capable of managing its resources for the protection and conservation of species for generations to come, under local regulations. Additionally, Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) has jurisdictional authority for management of fish and wildlife including endangered species in the territory.

“I highly urge NMFS to work, collaborate and consult with DMWR and relevant local stakeholders prior to critical habitat designation for American Samoa,” the governor said. “Keeping in mind that this proposed designation is within territorial waters, this collaborative effort will result in more efficient results that will better protect the corals of American Samoa.”

The governor’s letter is copied to federal officials, fishery leaders of the US Pacific territories and the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council, whose chairman is DMWR director, Taotasi Archie Soliai.