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If fishery observer rule not waived, fish supply for StarKist at risk

Air view of StarKist Samoa canning plant

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Without an emergency ruling waiving the required fishery observer on board US fishing vessels during the coronavirus pandemic, there will be a serious impact affecting not only the US fleet but StarKist cannery operations in American Samoa.

This is according to San Diego-based American Tunaboat Association (ATA), which also points out that Pacific island countries have already issued exemptions for observers  to be on board fishing vessels fishing in their waters, as the region and the world fight to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“A shutdown of the U.S. purse seine fleet would curtail a significant source of fish supply to the StarKist cannery in American Samoa, thus further exposing supply chain vulnerabilities so prevalent across a range of industries,” ATA executive director William Gibbons-Fly wrote in a Mar. 31st letter to US National Marine Fisheries Service deputy assistant administrator, Samuel D. Rauch III.

“This would be particularly damaging at a time when... the need for a steady supply of U.S. caught fish to ensure the food security of the American people has never been higher,” Gibbons-Fly said.

Samoa News notes that the Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga has exempted StarKist and support businesses — including fishing vessels —  from the 6a.m to 6p.m business operation hours restriction during the COVID-19 declaration. He cited food security supply for the exemption.

More than a week-ago, NMFS announced proposed emergency action to provide the ability in all U.S. fisheries to waive observer coverage under certain circumstance during the evolving outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“This emergency rule is being taken to ensure the public health and safety of fishermen, observers, or other persons in the area,” NMFS said in a notice ( with the proposed action effective Mar. 24 through Sept 23rd, while public comments are accepted until Apr. 27th.

In the letter, Gibbons-Fly explained that the U.S. tuna purse seine fleet provides a sustainable, high-quality, low-cost protein source to millions of Americans, including the US Department of Defense “to feed our military” and the US Department of Agriculture for the School Lunch Program.

He points out that this steady supply of shelf-stable tuna products is more important than ever during the current pandemic to safeguard American food security and to maintain the U.S. economy during this time of unprecedented economic disruption.

For this reason, the US Department of Homeland Security has included “farm and fishery labor needed to produce our food supply domestically” on its list of “essential critical infrastructure workforce related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“ATA strongly supports the Emergency Rule and urges [NMFS] to take immediate action under the Rule to grant a blanket exemption to required levels of observer coverage for the U.S. Pacific tuna purse seine fleet,” Gibbons-Fly said, noting that while there are a number of factors that support such a decision; the most important is, the alternative would simply be catastrophic for the U.S. fleet and to the public and government programs that depend on the supply of tuna the fleet provides.

Observers for the U.S. purse seine fleet operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean are provided under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between ATA and the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) which serves as the observer provider for the fleet.

According to ATA, the FFA on Mar. 27th informed the federal government, that “in response to the COVID-19 situation and the associated difficulty in deploying observers, the Pacific Islands Parties agreed to a temporary suspension of the requirement... that the operator shall carry at all times an observer from a national observer program or an existing regional observer programme.”

FFA also called for the return of observers currently aboard U.S. vessels to their home countries as a matter of priority.

Also on Mar. 27th, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), a subset of FFA members in whose waters most tuna fishing by the U.S. fleet takes place, took a comparable decision to “temporarily suspended requirements for 100 percent observer coverage for the purse seine fishery in PNA waters in response to COVID-19 conditions.”

Even before Mar. 27th, ATA said the vast majority of Pacific Island States that provide observers to the FFA observer program had already recalled their nationals serving as observers. Moreover, movement of observers and other vessel-related personnel throughout the Pacific is virtually at a standstill.

ATA tells NMFS that many Pacific Island States have closed their borders to both air and sea traffic, where most observers are picked up and dropped off. And airlines are curtailing service throughout the region.

“Most notably, Hawaiian Airlines, the only air link from Honolulu to Pago Pago, American Samoa, has suspended air travel through at least April 27,” said Gibbons-Fly, who points out that Pago Pago is the home port for most of the U.S. fleet.

“Without an exemption under the Emergency Rule, most of the U.S. fleet will have no choice but to suspend operations and shut down,” he said. “Right now, there are vessels in port ready to put to sea but unable to do so because no observer is available.”

He said that the situation is changing not day-by-day, but hour-by-hour and the related uncertainty poses great risk to the operations of the fleet.

ATA represents the owners and operators of large (greater than 400 short tons) tuna purse seine vessels operating under U.S. flag in the Pacific Ocean, according to the association. The majority of ATA members are multigenerational, family-owned businesses with a long and storied history as an important part of the U.S. fishing industry.