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Toatasi opposes proposed fishery rule for threatened corals in Pacific

Taotasi Archie Soliai
DMWR head and governor in agreement on the issue


Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) has found that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed rule to designate critical habitat for seven threatened corals in U.S. waters in the Indo-Pacific is “not based on the best scientific information available of what we know of these listed corals.”

This is according to a May 26th comment letter from DMWR director, Taotasi Archie Soliai to Mike Tosatto, administrator for NOAA/NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office in Honolulu.

The seven Indo- Pacific corals listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are 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.

In his letter, Taotasi points out that the proposed designation encompasses nearly all of the shallow waters around Tutuila, Ofu, Olosega, Ta’u, and Rose Atoll, and considers any hard substrates of coral reef areas as essential habitat to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed corals.

Taotasi requested that NMFS reconsider the coral critical habitat designation as this is redundant with local territorial regulations already addressing the issue. He explained that there are already existing local regulations prohibiting coral take, as well as other regulations under the marine protected area programs, Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards, and local permitting and review system of proposed coastal development.

He argued that these regulations already provide protection of ESA-listed corals and the federal coral critical habitat designation has the potential to inhibit, through unnecessary and lengthy consultations, the economic development and aspirations of the territory, which is highly dependent on its coastal resources.

However, if NMFS insists on proceeding with the designation, he said “we would like to request that NMFS consider refining the coral critical habitat areas using the distribution data of these ESA-listed corals based on three datasets collected by local experts”:

•           one dataset was based on 74 roving dive reef slope surveys in Tutuila, Aunuu, Ofu, Olosega, Tau, Rose Atoll and Swains;

•           belt transect data consisting of 500 surveys in 30 reef sites Tutuila Island since 2005;

•           a dataset of 370 surveys in north Tutuila; and

•           coral species sightings.

“Information based on local expertise indicates that only some of the reef areas are optimal habitat for corals in American Samoa waters,” said Taotasi and shared with NMFS a thorough analysis of the department’s data sets regarding the coral habitat to be designated around the islands of American Samoa.

Taotasi reiterated that based on the available scientific information, DMWR requests that NMFS suspend the current proposed coral critical habitat designation. He said DMWR’s proposed process and candidate coral critical habitat areas are based on the best scientific information available.

He urged NMFS to support DMWR to further refine the coral critical habitat designation and associated maps within a sufficient period.

“Mr. Tosatto, the coral reefs here in our islands have sustained our local fishing communities through livelihood, subsistence and fish for cultural activities for thousands of years,” Taotasi wrote.

“Fishing is integral to fa’asamoa, our way of life. We recognize that these coral reefs currently face various threats such as climate change, land-based source of pollution, and high exploitation and as such they need protection,” he said.  “But we emphasize that any proposed coral critical habitat designation should recognize other local regulations that protect these listed corals and most importantly, be based on the Best Scientific Information Available, and be developed with necessary local consultations with various local stakeholders and territorial agencies.”

“On a bigger picture, the biggest threats to these ESA-listed corals are global climate change, and habitat destruction in 99% of their area of distribution. The main sources of these threats are outside of American Samoa and designating coral critical habitat here will not necessarily save these corals,” he concluded.

Copies of his letter were also sent to other NMFS officials, fisheries officials in the US Pacific territories, and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, where Taotasi is chairman.

Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga has already written to NOAA Fisheries with his opposition to the proposed rule. (See Samoa News edition last Friday for details.)