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Gov pleads to extend comment time on PIRA sanctuary designation

Gov. Lemanu P.S. Mauga
Basis of proposal rests on reports and studies furnished by proponents

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Gov. Lemanu P.S Mauga has argued that American Samoa needs more time to — among other things — “develop and provide evidence to support their objections” to the federal proposal for marine sanctuary designation for the Pacific Remote Island Areas (PIRA) — a move that would expand the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument.

And the governor has requested that the U.S Commerce Department, which has oversight on federal fishery issues, extend the public comment period — which closed on June 02 on the federal proposal to August 16, 2023 or beyond.

Available public records as of 9a.m. last Saturday, June 03, do not show any indication on whether the public comment period is extended.

In a June 1 letter to US Secretary of Commerce, Gina M. Raimondo, the governor pointed to his correspondence in June last year to U.S President Joe Biden, in which the governor argued that the proposal has “the potential to significantly harm the way of life of the indigenous people of American Samoa.”

“Our community must have an opportunity to thoroughly review the Biden Administrations intended actions and to provide comments,” the governor wrote.

Furthermore, the territorial Legislature, is on recess until mid-July and “it is imperative that our legislative representatives have the chance to formally weigh in,” said Lemanu, who requested that the comment period be extended to August 16, 2023 or beyond.

The governor pointed out that the federal notice on the federal proposal was published Apr. 17 with June 02, as deadline for public comments, which is a mere 45-days later.

However, the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scoping meeting was held in American Samoa on May 24 which means that American Samoa stakeholders have effectively had only nine days after the NOAA presentation to provide their comments, the governor said.

“This is simply not enough time for American Samoa to develop and provide evidence to support their objections to the proposed rule and/or to document the adverse impacts that should be considered in the impact statement,” Lemanu pointed out.

According to the governor, this is “especially true given that the economic and cultural impact” that will result from the proposed sanctuary designation “will be exacerbated by the concurrent proposed rulemaking related to the Effort Limit Area for Purse Seine Fisheries (ELAPS).”

“Combined, these two proposals have the potential to cause catastrophic damage to the American Samoa government and people,” the governor declared.

As previously reported by Samoa News, the U.S National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced in September last year, a proposed rule that eliminates its use of a combined purse seine effort limit in the ELAPS, and creates two separate limits of 1,270 days for the high seas and 558 days that could only be fished within the U.S. EEZ.

The ELAPS proposal — currently being finalized — in which the U.S. is to comply with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) measures, is opposed by American Samoa and it was argued in a public filing that the move would have a serious impact on the US flagged purse seiners based in American Samoa, as well as the local economy, which is dependent on the tuna industry.

In his letter to Commerce Secretary Raimondo, the governor argued that the proposed PRIA sanctuary designation, combined with the proposed rulemaking to the ELAPS, will likely result in the loss of the tuna industry in American Samoa, the loss of 5,000 jobs, a potential 40%  increase in shipping and freight costs, and a dramatic increase in utility costs.

“Simply put, the loss of access to American Samoa’s traditional and historic fishing grounds will decimate American Samoa’s tuna industry and, with it, the entire economy,” Lemanu pointed out.

“The severity of the socioeconomic and cultural impact that may result from the proposed rulemaking demands that additional time be provided for American Samoa to develop the evidence it needs to fully and adequately comment” on the PIRA notice, said the governor, who included a copy of his June 15, 2022 letter to Biden voicing American Samoa’s strong opposition to the PIRA marine sanctuary designation of PIRA.

(See Samoa News online edition June 25, 2022 for governor’s letter to Biden. And also see Samoa News edition Apr. 10, 2023 for the governor’s second letter sent to Biden.)

Meanwhile, the governor sent a separate request — through a June 1 letter to Kristina Kekuewa, the Pacific Islands Regional Director of the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries — to extend the public comment period to Aug. 16 or beyond.

The governor believes that a single public scoping meeting for “our people is insufficient time for proper dialogue and review of an action that will have significant and irreparable harm to this community.”

 “There has been a lack of meaningful conversation with our indigenous communities since this proposal was introduced, which certainly warrants additional time for us to make informed comments on the matter,” he said adding that he had twice written to President Biden requesting further consultation and objecting to this proposal

Lemanu said he has not received a response from the White House to those requests.

According to the governor, NOAA has provided very limited information and data on the proposal, including fishing efforts within the PRIA and economic impacts.

“It appears the basis of this proposal rests on reports and studies furnished by the proponents of the measure without proper validation,” the governor said.

“Utilizing unreliable data without consideration of cumulative fishery closures in US waters and the reality of the existing regulatory landscape leads to a false narrative on the value of the PRIA to the US and American Samoa,” he said.

“I cannot submit an informed position and statement based on unreliable data,” the governor declared and reiterated that: “Our community must have an ample opportunity to thoroughly review the economic, social and cultural consequences that this proposed sanctuary will have on our people.”

No information was available at press time as to whether or not Kekuewa has responded to the governor’s request.