Gov joins in calls to grant exemptions for Am. Samoa purse seiner fleet
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Gov. Lemanu P.S. Mauga has urged the U.S National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to use its “inherent discretion” to grant an exemption to high seas limits for purse seiner vessels based in American Samoa, whose economy is dependent on the cannery — which is the territory’s largest private employer.
“We need your support for tuna operations of American Samoa, otherwise, I fear that we will lose our tuna industry,” Lemanu wrote in a Sept. 22 letter to Sarah Malloy, the Acting Regional Administrator for the NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) in Honolulu.
The governor’s letter is in response to a NMFS notice published earlier this month on a proposed rule that would “modify” existing limits on fishing effort by U.S. purse seine vessels in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and on the high seas on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO).
NMFS established under current rules a combined limit on fishing effort by U.S. purse seine vessels in the Effort Limit Area for Purse Seine — or ELAPS, which comprises the areas of the high seas and U.S. EEZ — of 1,828 fishing days per year for 2020 and subsequent years.
The 1,828 fishing days are managed together — 1270 days in the high seas, and 558 days in the US EEZ, according to federal documents and a local industry official.
NMFS is now proposing to modify the current rule, to establish separate U.S. EEZ and high seas limits. And that NMFS would implement the limits in this proposed rule to remain effective until they are replaced or amended, according to the NMFS public notice.
However, the governor raised concerns and questions in his comment letter saying that he does not support the proposed rule by the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NMFS.
Lemanu argued: “Access to the fishing grounds for our American Samoa based U.S. flag tuna purse seiners is critically important to American Samoa's tuna processing industry as evidenced by my several past pleadings to NOAA to treat our purse seiner fleet as a part of our Small Island Developing Territory whose economy is heavily dependent on tuna supply.”
The governor pointed to study commissioned by NMFS, that discussed this “dependency” and provided the narrative of the study in 2016 — “Analyzing the economic impacts of the 2015 ELAPS Closure. NMFS Internal Report.”
The study “estimated that the overall losses to the combined sectors of the vessels, canneries and vessel support companies from the 2015 ELAPS closure ranged from $11 million and $110 million depending on the counterfactual period considered.”
Additionally, these “results suggest that there were impacts of the ELAPS closure on the American Samoa economy through impacts to the canneries and vessel support companies and a connection between U.S. purse seine vessels and the broader American Samoa economy.”
“If there was a closure of the U.S. EEZ or high seas in the WCPO, it is likely there would be impacts to the American Samoa economy though the magnitude would depend on the length of the closure, and whether both or just one of the areas was closed to fishing,” according to the narrative of the study, cited in the governor’s letter.
In response to this study, Lemanu informed NMFS in his letter that, knowing that the proposed rule will separate U.S. EEZ days from high seas days, and that separation will likely result in closing the high seas where American Samoa’s US flag purse seiners operate, thereby reducing the tuna supply to the local economy, “I cannot support this action being proposed by NOAA.”
The governor also said that he realizes that NOAA is taking the proposed action so that the United States complies with the conservation and management measures adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and “I have no issue with that.”
But the governor raised the same question that he has in the past, “Why doesn't the U.S. regulate the U.S flag purse seiners based in American Samoa as a SIDS' fleet? Doing so would except these boats from fishing limits on the high seas, giving them the same rights as other SIDS' fleets.”
(Samoa News notes that SIDS stands for “small-island developing states” and American Samoa in the past requested that NMFS work to grant purse seiners that operate primarily out of American Samoa the privileges of SIDS under Article 30 of the WCPFC, as this is to relieve the hardship of ELAPS.)
In his letter Lemanu also provided specific comments on certain background issues in the NMFS notice. The governor referred to the statement, “NMFS also notes that there are significantly fewer licensed U.S. vessels operating under these limits, reducing the risk that separate limits will be exceeded.”
In response, the governor points out that while the risk may be reduced, it is quite substantial. “In fact, we expect that the proposed 1,270 day high seas limit could be reached this year and American Samoa would be negatively impacted by the closure.”
According to NFMS, six vessels are currently licensed under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty (SPTT), which provides for U.S. purse seine fishing businesses to purchase ‘‘additional’’ fishing days through direct bilateral agreements with the Pacific Island Parties (PIPs) to the SPTT.
In response to this NMFS statement, the governor argued, “NMFS fails to recognize the risk that additional fishing days through bilateral fishing agreements may not be available, or, that the cost of bilateral fishing days is beyond the means of the U.S. purse seiners based in American Samoa.”
“There is no cost for high seas days. Bilateral fishing days cost as much as $14,000 per day, if they are available at all,” Lemanu points out.
Another point of contention for the governor is the NMFS finding: “The number of U.S. purse seine vessels in the WCPO fleet that have opted to be categorized as active on the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) Vessel Register has increased in the last few years from zero to 17, probably due largely a result of constraints on fishing days in the WCPO and/or uncertainty in future access under the SPTT. This suggests an increasing attractiveness of fishing the EPO (eastern Pacific Ocean), in spite of the costs, associated with doing so.”
The governor countered in his response arguing that transferring purse seiner fishing effort from the WCPO to the EPO “is going to inflict further damage on American Samoa’s tuna dependent economy. Our tuna industry needs tuna for processing.”
“It is uneconomical to bring tuna to American Samoa from boats fishing in the EPO, just as it is to ship tuna to our canneries from other ports anywhere else in the world,” the governor points out. “To be economically viable, the American Samoa tuna processing industry needs supply of tuna by direct delivery from fishing vessels, fishing relatively close to American Samoa, e.g., the high seas areas.”
Lemanu said that NMFS needs to change the way that they are regulating the American Samoa based U.S. flag purse seiners.
“These vessels have historically supported the cannery and economy of American Samoa for several decades. These vessels are part of our SIDS fleet. They need to be regulated as such,” the governor declared.
Local industry officials says this is an important issue for American Samoa and it’s economy and urged the community — including the Fono — for support in sending comments to NMFS, which has set Oct. 03 as the deadline to receive comments.
Details of the propose rule and to provide comment on federal portal (https://www.regulations.gov/docket/NOAA-NMFS-2022-0082/document).
Also included in the proposed rule is a provision, which makes adjustment to the 2022 longline bigeye tuna catch limits. And comments for this provision are also due on Oct. 03.
Read the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council’s objections to the same NMFS issues in yesterday’s Samoa News.