Op-Ed: Fagatele Bay Expansion Plan - the Public should be concerned
I would like to express my concerns over the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary expansion plan -there has been a disappointing and suspiciously small amount of press coverage at the past two public meetings, and before the next two meetings in Manu'a on Monday 21st November.
It seems to be very obvious that they are trying to reduce the amount of public coverage and number of attendees at the meetings as much as possible. The process for the public to provide comments also seems to be very difficult for the public to participate in.
For example the newspapers or the TV were not present at the first meeting a week ago, Thursday, at the ASCC and only KHJ ran a story about it on Friday morning.
There was a lot of opposition and concern about this important matter and this is something that the public should know about. Even though we are told that the Sanctuary expansion process is involving the public at very step, it seems to be so difficult to have the opportunity to find out more information, ask questions at the meeting, and provide comments before the deadline of January 6th.
I believe the public consultation process has been badly designed, or well designed depending on what the intentions are.
Firstly why are there only 2 public meetings being held in Tutuila, one on the west side and one on the east side? What about one in the middle, say in Utulei, where more people can attend?
Also why are the meetings organized during the Palolo worm harvest when many of us are out all night? The meeting in Auasi was at 9 a.m. on Nov. 18th, which is the day when most people won't have got to bed until 5 a.m.; and to have to get all the way over to the east side so early in the morning was next to impossible.
Surely such a well organized federal program should know that the first rule of meeting with the public is to find out if there are any important events happening at the same time, and to organize the meeting at a different time.
Also why haven't the meetings been advertised more? I heard the radio news the day before the first meeting and a very long piece about the Sanctuary kiosks at the airport and the hospital was aired, but no mention or reminder about the public meetings.
Also Samoa News ran a story about the kiosks the day after the ASCC meeting, but no mention about the public meeting. Very strange. Almost calculated one would think.
The Sanctuary program is usually extremely good at submitting press releases "bigging" themselves up about the various promotional events they hold, surely this event should have been treated the same way.
And why is the process for commenting during the public meeting so complicated?
At the ASCC meeting we arrived to sign in before the meeting and were told we had to sign up our names if we wanted to comment during the meeting. We were then subject to a complicated presentation and shown maps and lists of regulations that we hadn't ever seen before, and then no time for questions and answers.
How are people expected to provide intelligent comments before even hearing about the proposal and before being able to ask questions?
We are told that the responses to the comments will be released in March 2012 after the public comment period is closed and after our final chance to make any informed decisions.
This seems unrealistic and unfair, and again almost as if the Sanctuary staff don't want to hear our comments or answer our questions.
The Auasi meeting was even worse, only a few people actually made it to the meeting, which was conducted in the form of a village council meeting rather than a normal public meeting. The council had the opportunity to talk first and then the public had to stand in front of the council to present their comments. This is a very intimidating way to hold a meeting and not one that facilitates the gathering of comments and opinions.
During the first meeting it was obvious that village communities close to the proposed sites hadn't even heard about the proposals or seen the maps before. But we are told that the Office of Samoan Affairs was told about the plans and that our mayors should have passed on the information.
It is obvious that the people of Vaitogi were never consulted, even the village council didn't know about it, and the evidence is in the name of the proposed site.
The Vaitogi community would have never agreed to the name Larsons, when they have used the name Fogama'a for generations.
At the Auasi meeting the village council members unanimously opposed the expansion, even though we were told that all the villages had been consulted previously and were in agreement to the plans.
They also expressed concern over the need for an additional program when the existing Marine & Wildlife office already works well with various communities to help them protect their own village marine resources.
It is interesting to note that none of the other resource agencies are working with and supporting the Sanctuary proposal. They say in the management plan that they will work closely with other agencies, but the National Park do not want to work with them in Ta'u and have specifically requested not to consider the Ta'u site; and the local Marine and Wildlife Office is not giving any official position on the proposals.
This is strange considering that they should all really work together to do the same thing, rather than competing with each other.
The comment period is also at a bad time with the busy festive period of Thanksgiving and Christmas, a time of family gatherings, which means less time to organize comments before the 6 of January.
Anyone would think that it was designed in such a way to reduce the number of people who will get a change to raise their concerns and ask questions? Why would this be?
It seems like another attempt to get us stupid villagers to just let the big federal agencies take over our land and our rightfully owned waters, without even realizing it is happening before it is too late.
The Governor is on board though, so there must be some incentives for us right?
Well the head of Marine Sanctuary Program for the US told us at a public event earlier this year that 10% of the whole Marine Sanctuary Program in the US was promised to Fagatele Bay Sanctuary this financial year (there are 13 other much larger sites that also need that money). And a huge amount of money was given to ASG from NOAA for a hyperbaric chamber for the hospital.
And we have new expensive kiosks and plasma screens at the airport promised and more things to come that have probably cost a lot of money. And of course, all those jobs, with new ones in the pipework.
Nice incentives but what happens if we oppose all the proposed sites, are they going to have to give the money back to the Sanctuary head office? Will some people lose their jobs?
It seems that the Sanctuary program people are very confident that they will be designating these 5 new sites in 2012: They already have expanded the number of staff and have these education kiosks about the proposed sites.
This is blatantly something which seems like it has already been signed off on and they are just going through the motions of holding public meetings, without really getting full input from the public so they can sneak it through without us realizing it.
The public needs to know about these plans and also make sure that they voice and submit their comments before the 6th January, before it is too late to do anything but complain.
Comments can be submitted in writing to the Fagatele Bay office at Department of Commerce or submit comments to the federal site so that everyone can see http://www.regulations.gov (enter NOAA-NOS-2011-0243 in the search box).
The management plan documents can be viewed on http://fagatelebay.noaa.gov/management/reports.html.
(Editor's Note: The meeting for the Public Review of Sanctuary Draft Plan at Ofu, Manu'a was canceled because of poor weather conditions. It was re-scheduled to Wednesday, Nov. 23 - with one ad run in Tuesday's, Nov, 22, Samoa News edition. We are not aware if radio announcements were made notifying the public of the change, nor can we confirm if the meeting was held. ra)