ISLAND PACKERS — A PIECE OF AMERICAN SAMOA HISTORY
Tri-Marine will soon begin transforming the former Samoa Packing in Atu’u into a new 21st century tuna processing facility.
The Atu’u location has housed a tuna plant since 1949, when Island Packers began operation. (The accompanying photo, taken sometime between 1949 and 1954, is on display at the Jean P. Haydon Museum. It depicts the original Island Packers plant — with the name shown on the roof of one building.)
Island Packers was a private U.S. company formed after a two-year, post-war survey of the fishery potential in the South Pacific. The investors, which included Lawrence Rockefeller, leased land from the U.S. Navy, which then governed the territory.
The lease stipulated than no more than 10 non-Samoans were to be employed by the plant, which would pay wages comparable to those paid to Government of American Samoa employees. Island Packers was also required to sell canned fish to locals at prices they could afford. The government would also benefit from a 2% export tax that was levied on canned tuna sent off island; tax proceeds were to be set aside for local development needs.
To ensure enough fish supply, Island Packers had three 70-ton refrigerated fishing vessels and a 220-ton “reefer ship” based in Fiji, which would deliver frozen fish to American Samoa for processing.
The plant employed about 100 local residents and had a capacity of about 20 tons per day.
Island Packers lasted only two years, and went bankrupt in 1951. The primary reasons cited were an inadequate supply of fish to process. The fishermen had trouble securing the baitfish they needed for the style of fishing they used.
Following the bankruptcy, the cannery was purchased in December 1951 by a San Francisco firm, Wilbur-Ellis. Five months later, Wilbur-Ellis sold the cannery to the Government of American Samoa. The U.S. Department of Interior, which had taken over governance of American Samoa in 1951 when the Navy departed, paid for the purchase.
Six months later, the Government of American Samoa (which was later renamed the American Samoa Government) called for bids from U.S. companies to take over the tuna plant. Several California-based companies responded, and the bid of Van Camp Seafood of San Diego was accepted in 1953.
Van Camp began leasing the land on January 1, 1954 with an initial 5-year lease that was renewed many times before the cannery closed in 2009. There were several changes of ownership from 1954-2009 and the Atu’u cannery was ultimately renamed Chicken of the Sea/Samoa Packing. At the time it closed its doors, the company was a subsidiary of Thai Union Frozen Food Company of Thailand.
In the years before it closed, SamPack employed about 2,400 workers and processed 400 tons of tuna a day.
[Most of the information in this article was gathered by Samoa Packing on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2004.]