Tunaboat Association calls on NOAA to curb further restrictions in US-EEZ
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The U.S based, American Tunaboat Association (ATA) is urging the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “to establish a management plan for any Pacific Remote Islands sanctuary that does not further restrict commercial fishing in areas where such activity is not already prohibited.”
ATA, an industry association representing the owners and operators of the U.S. flag tuna purse seine fleet based in American Samoa, made the call in a comment letter to NOAA, which was seeking public comments on the proposed sanctuary designation of the Pacific Remote Island Areas — which expands the current Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM).
ATA executive director, William Gibbons-Fly, is the author of the association’s letter, saying that ATA supports science-based conservation and management measures to conserve living marine resources, including the fragile, unique, and endemic nearshore marine resources and deep-sea habitats that the current monuments and proposed marine sanctuary are intended to protect.
However, ATA is extremely concerned about any proposal that would further limit or prohibit commercial fishing in the remaining areas of the U.S. EEZ that are not already closed under the existing PRIMNM.
Gibbons-Fly shared that ATA understands that the designation of a National Marine Sanctuary does not, in and of itself, mean a prohibition on commercial fishing.
“In fact, it is our understanding that commercial fishing in sanctuaries is not exceptional but prevalent, with appropriate safeguards in place to ensure such activity does not undermine the goals of the sanctuary itself,” he said.
At the outset of the letter, ATA addressed the impacts to the industry as well as American Samoa, saying that the argument that the impact of any proposal to ban commercial fishing would be negligible is simply false.
“This proposed action is not happening in isolation, but is just one of a series of past and proposed future actions, the ‘cumulative effects’ of which pose an existential threat to the future of the American Samoa-based tuna purse seine fleet and, as a result, a real and severe threat to the economy of American Samoa,” Gibbons-Fly said.
ATA informs NOAA that in the past three years, the U.S. tuna purse seine fleet has been reduced from 34 vessels to just 13 vessels operating today. The remaining vessels are based in American Samoa and support the local economy by delivering tuna to the StarKist facility there, the largest private sector employer in the territory, and by utilizing a range of goods and services provided by local businesses.
“The economy of American Samoa is overwhelmingly dependent on the tuna industry and the related service industries that support both the StarKist facility and the vessels based there,” Gibbons-Fly said.
“The future of the U.S. purse seine fleet and the future of American Samoa are inextricably and undeniably linked,” he declared.
He also shared a summary of what he calls important background information in order to understand the full range of past, current, and proposed actions affecting the American Samoa-based fleet.
For example, in 2008, President Bush created the PRIMNM, closing waters of the seven Pacific Remote Islands to commercial fishing out to 50 nautical miles. In 2014, President Obama expanded that Monument to include the entire U.S. EEZ around Wake Island, Johnson Atoll, and Jarvis Island.
“The loss of fishing opportunities in Jarvis Island, in particular, dealt a significant blow to the industry, as the EEZ around Jarvis Island was among the richest traditional fishing grounds for the American Samoa-based fleet,” Gibbons-Fly said.
“Within two years of this action, one of the two canneries that operated in American Samoa at the time closed for good,” he said, but didn’t identify the cannery by name. (Samoa News notes that the time frame cited by Gibbons-Fly was when Tri Marine International shut down its local cannery operations.)
According to ATA, the current proposal would further expand the fisheries closures to include the entire U.S. EEZ around the remaining islands of Pacific Remote Island areas, shutting the U.S. fleet entirely out of waters under U.S. jurisdiction in these areas.
“Each of these actions, including the current proposal, has been advanced using the argument that the impact on the U.S. fishing industry is negligible,” said Gibbons-Fly. “However, the cumulative effect of these and other actions has had a significant adverse impact on the American Samoa- based purse seine fleet.”
CEDING PACIFIC TO CHINA
According to ATA, this is another step in the U.S ceding the Pacific to China and argued that the activities of the American Samoa-based fleet provide a critical counterbalance to China’s growing influence across the region.
“China has focused strategically on developing direct commercial ties with several Pacific Island States through investments in the fisheries sector, both through the activities of its vessels as well as shoreside investments,” Gibbons-Fly tells NOAA. “China understands that building commercial and industry ties is the single most important vector for political and economic engagement.”
“As a result, maintaining a viable American Samoa-based purse seine fleet operating in the Pacific Ocean contributes not only to the United States and American Samoa economy, but to regional food security, national security, and other vital national interests,” he said.
Additionally, the fleet also operates as several additional sets of “eyes and ears” across vast reaches of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.
ATA contends that the fleet operates on an increasingly uneven playing field with respect to its international competitors, in particular China.
Furthermore, China and other flag states are able to exempt their vessels from a range of international regulatory requirements by reflagging or entering into charter arrangements with Pacific Island States who themselves are exempt from these requirements.
“And yet, although the underlying Convention requires that ‘Participating Territories’ such as American Samoa be afforded the same treatment as the Pacific Island States, the America Samoa-based fleet is not afforded the same treatment, creating a vastly disproportionate burden on the American Samoa economy,” said ATA.
“It is often said, because it is undeniably true, that fisheries are as central to the politics of the Pacific as oil is to the Middle East,” said Gibbons-Fly.
“Unless the United States is prepared to withdraw completely from engagement with the Pacific Island States on these strategically important fisheries issues, thus contributing to China’s growing dominance in the Pacific, these trends affecting the American Samoa-based fleet must be addressed and reversed, and soon,” he points out.
June 02 was the deadline to submit public comments on the proposal and as of yesterday morning more than 2,000 comments have been released on the federal portal (www.regulations.gov)
Gov. Lemanu P.S Mauga has requested NOAA to extend the comment period but no new update yet as of press time.