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AS needs fishing days in order to survive, says tuna industry veteran

“For the survival of American Samoa, the US [flag] fleet needs those  3,882 high sea” fishing days, declared William M. Sardinha, a San  Diego based tuna vessel manager and consultant. “And let's be frank,  if the tuna industry leaves American Samoa, their future economy will  be almost totally dependent on US aid.”

Sardinha’s comments were outlined in an 8-page comment letter to the US National Marine Fisheries Service, which sought public comments on its proposed rule of 1,828 fishing days for calendar year 2017 for U.S. purse seine vessels in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and on the high seas — the area known in federal regulations as Effort Limit Area for Purse Seine, or ELAPS.

The comment period closed early this month and NMFS is expected to issue soon a final notice of the proposed rule.

In his letter,  Sardinha acknowledged that any comments received by NMFS will not change the intention of the proposal, saying he sees the public comments request as solely an administrative procedure. However, he’s hopeful his comments are taken into consideration when developing any conservation measures at the December 2017 meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission (WCPFC) for years 2018 to 2020.

During his 40-plus years in the tuna business, Sardinha said he has seen the US government “regulate our fishing business with the unintended consequences of diminishing our deep water US tuna purse seine fleet.”

And the “continued limitations of our ELAPS days is another example of good intentions resulting in a disaster for the US tuna fleet,” he said, adding that he disagrees with the 2017 fishing days limitation.

According to him, the US tuna vessels, major stakeholders, were never given a meaningful opportunity for input on this high seas issue.

“Given the chance in a scientific setting, the US tuna industry would have been able to explain that their deep-water fishing vessels do not have an impact on the resource in international waters or in the US EEZ areas,” he said.

Additionally, US government decisions are now showing the damage it has caused the US tuna industry and the American Samoa economy. Further, US boats are being sold and going bankrupt and Tri Marine International’s cannery has stopped operating in American Samoa.

“This has caused a financial hardship to the economy with the loss of jobs and business to American Samoa and related supporting companies near and far,” he continued, and provided comments which he hopes will be given meaningful consideration that would allow the US fleet to once again fish in international waters without any high seas and US EEZ  limitation days.

He hopes “our future agreements do not end up giving non-US countries an unfair fishing advantage over our US fleet.”

Sardinha provided detailed background information on high seas fishing and US EEZ, and pointed out that US vessels were able to “fish for free according to the International Law of the Sea” from June 1988 up until 2009 — when the US government “against our wishes told us that they are limiting” the number of high seas fishing days to a maximum of 3,882 in a given year.

The fishing days were again changed in 2012 — reducing the fishing days limitation — and again in 2014 down to 1,828, he said, adding that as the US lowered fishing days in the high seas, fees in the EEZ of neighboring countries “accelerated upwards and it is the main reason why a VDS (vessel-day-scheme) day costs $12,500 today.”

“This is simple economics, supply and demand, with our ability to fish in the High Seas being faded out the Islands simply raised our access fees and if we wanted to fish we had no choice but to pay,” he said, adding that it's simply “illogical and is not economically sustainable for a US vessel to continue to fish in the waters” of Pacific island states at a rate of $12,500 a day. “The loss of US flagged vessels and the loss of the Tri Marine cannery substantiates this fact,” he points out.

“It is frustrating for our US fishermen to be accused of being the bad guys with our desire to fish in International Waters,” he added.  “We are being accused by people that have no idea of the rules and regulations to which we must comply [with].”

He provided suggestions of what must be done, going forward, for the US purse seiner fleet. At the top of the suggestion list: eliminate any fishing day limitations on fishing in International Waters orI and fishing day limitations for vessels allowed to fish in the EEZs of the US territories.

“The US needs to recapture their ability to fish on the high sea days to their potential,” he said. “The StarKist cannery keeps running out of fish and Tri Marine had to cease operations.”

He said this point was recently brought up by Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga as one of the factors for the budget problems in American Samoa.

He added that opening the high seas without fishing day limitations would support and promote the US Tuna Vessels, which benefits the US industry throughout the Pacific with US jobs, business, growth, a food source, and provides the US government with taxes.

“It is particularly helpful and needed in American Samoa, where much of its economy is dependent on tuna,” he said, and suggested that the US fleet be given 3,882 fishing days in the high seas.