Feds asked to modify NMSAS expansion for Aunu'u
Gov. Lolo Moliga has requested the federal government to modify the expansion of the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa pertaining to the two fishing areas in waters surrounding Aunu’u island-village.
The governor’s request is outlined in a letter last month to Rebecca Blank, the acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, whose bureaus and offices include the National Marine Sanctuary Office.
Lolo pointed out that Aunu’u is surrounded by an extensive coral reef and reef slope which are important fishing grounds for Aunu’u residents as well as fishermen from the main island of Tutuila. The Aunu’u unit, according to the sanctuary expansion, is set up under Zone A and B.
Zone A is the Multiple Use Zone, and would require any vessel operator to notify the National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) office or its designee in the village of Aunu’u prior to each fishing trip.
Lolo said this requirement is not linked to any requirement to provide catch data which then calls into question why this provision is in place for Zone A. He said there is a long established and well maintained fishery data collection program under the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR).
If this requirement for Zone A is maintained, Lolo is asking to modify the reporting process for fishermen to report to DMWR “rather than the NMS office, which does not have the experience with fishery monitoring.”
Zone B is the Research Zone, which would prohibit the harvest of marine resources except for trolling and surface fishing.
Lolo told Blank no research plan has been provided to justify this restriction and “we assume that the main purpose” of this zone is to enable researchers to observe natural variation in a coral reef ecosystem in the absence of fishing.
Without a research plan, Lolo said it’s difficult to see how this zone benefits the people of American Samoa, “who have been disenfranchised of their patrimony and rights to fish on their reefs and associated fishing grounds."
Lolo is requesting that fishing for bottom-fish also be permitted in addition to trolling "as deep-slope bottom-fish comprise a relatively narrow complex of deep water snappers, emperors and groupers that live beyond the area of live corals on the deep reef slope."
Lolo pointed out that the area adjacent to Aunu’u that is encompassed by Zone B is a primary fishing ground for local bottom-fish fishermen.
The Governor said bottom-fish as a whole in American Samoa “are in extremely good shape” based on a recent stock assessment conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Services.
The maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for the stock is about 76,000 pounds with recent average annual catches of approximately 31,000 pounds, said Lolo, who added that this equates to a near zero probability of overfishing the stock at this level of catch.
In addition, bottom-fish fishing uses hook and line fishing gear which has been shown to have little to no impact on demersal substrates, especially beyond the extent of coral on the rocky deep reef slope.
“There is no scientific justification for the prohibition of bottom-fish fishing in Zone B given the habitat distinction between bottom-fish and fishes that live within the coral reef ecosystem, the abundance of bottom-fish in American Samoa, and that bottom fishing poses negligible risks to demersal substrates,” Lolo argues.
He said the effect of closure will force bottom-fish fishermen to travel further and fish in less productive waters, which will not only have economic effects, but also includes safety at sea concerns.
Furthermore, bottom-fish fishery was determined by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to have suffered a “fisheries disaster” from the impact of the 2009 tsunami, but has yet to receive relief funds from NOAA. “Closure of Zone B further compounds the negative impact to this fishery,” the governor said.
During the Senate confirmation hearing of Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga as DMWR director last month, Sen. Saole Mila, whose contingency includes Aunu’u, said DMWR and the government need to revisit some of the restrictions the federal government has placed on waters surrounding the island because it now prevents freedom of fishermen to fish these waters, including bottom-fish fishing.
He said such prohibition forces fishermen from Aunu’u and others on Tutuila to go further out to sea making it a safety concern for these fishermen. He claims that some of the information given to Aunu’u residents during public meetings on the sanctuary expansion were misleading.
Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WPRFMC) executive director Kitty M. Simonds in a Dec. 29, 2011 letter to the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary (FBNMS) regarding the expansion of the sanctuary also raised the issue of the Aunu’u unit.
(The FBNMS name has since been changed to National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, which now includes the expansion areas as well as Fagatele Bay.)
According to Simonds, a recent mapping study conducted by DMWR showed significant fishing activities around Aunu’u and this is an important fishing ground for bottom fishermen when waters around Taputapu are not accessible.
Additionally, fishery data collected by DMWR showed annual landings of fish taken from the vicinity of Aunu’u ranging from 4,871 to 462,263 pounds caught by bottom-fishing, spear-fishing and mixed bottom-fishing and trolling methods.
“This information shows the contribution of Aunu’u as a critical fishing ground for the territory,” said Simonds. “Restricting fishing access will displace fishing efforts into smaller areas, which can in turn increase fishing pressure in other areas, reduces catches, increase operational costs and increase fishermen risk at sea.”
She also questioned the need by fishing operators to seek permission prior to entry into Zone A. “The indigenous people of American Samoa have free access to their waters. Requiring permission from a federal entity deviates from the cultural sensitivity aspect that FBNMS is trying to project,” she said.
OVERALL EXPANSION CONCERNS
In his letter to Blank, the governor said the expansion of the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary (FBNMS) to include five additional units “was extremely divisive and greatly polarized public opinion, with the majority not being in favor of the expansion” and provided public comments for Blank to review.
It's unfortunate, said Lolo, that these voices of concern with the expansion were not heeded and the sanctuary expansion was implemented.
However, Lolo said he feels that the “modest changes proposed [for Aunu’u unit] will not undermine” the expanded national marine sanctuary “but will enhance fishery data collection and make the sanctuary a little more palatable to my people.”
Lolo hopes the federal agency will give these issues serious consideration.
In the meantime, Samoa News published a story on Saturday, Feb. 09, 2013 about Rep. Larry Sanitoa's concerns with the NMSAS expansion. The story also makes note of the confusion by the public and the Fono about whether or not the expansion proposal is a done deal.
In the article, Samoa News notes that a media alert was received from the NMSAS of a meeting to be held today, Monday, Feb 11 at 9 a.m., inside the Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center — rotunda main room.
_The meeting is touted as “Engaging villages with opportunities to create strong livelihoods and communities within new sanctuary units in American Samoa”, and is being held to “share and work collaboratively with community leaders…”
Deputy Sec. of OSA, District Governors, County Chiefs, Village Mayors, Village Police, Director & Deputy Director of DOC, NMSAS Superintendent & staff are listed as attendees.