DOC hosts public meeting on expanded marine sanctuary
Exactly how much of a share the territory gets from money collected on penalties imposed on shipping companies that violate federal pollution and environmental laws in local waters was a hot topic discussed yesterday during a public meeting held in the rotunda of the Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center.
Close to 100 people attended the meeting, including county chiefs, village mayors, village police, Deputy Secretary of the Office of Samoan Affairs Tuiagamoa Tavai, the Eastern, Western and Manu’a District Governors, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa superintendent and staff, and Department of Commerce director Keniseli Lafaele, and DOC deputy director Lelei Peau who presided over the meeting. (The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources was not on the list of attendees and therefore, nobody from that office was at yesterday’s meeting, although many believe the sanctuary should be placed under the umbrella of DMWR, not DOC).
According to the media alert announcing the meeting, the purpose of yesterday's get-together was "to share and work collaboratively with community leaders to develop stronger links, foster opportunities, and enhance economic growth, improve livelihoods, promote ocean stewardship and marketing of our unique natural and cultural resources in each of the new sanctuary units."
With nearly 100 people in attendance, and despite the fact that the entire meeting was conducted in the Samoan language, only five questions were asked, leading some to speculate that there is a lack of understanding on the importance of the issue at hand. The meeting, which included a slideshow presentation and a question and answer segment, lasted only one hour.
The meeting began with Peau explaining the importance of the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa (NMSAS). The NMSAS, formerly the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, now includes five additional areas. They are: Fagalua/Fogama’a, waters around Muliāva (also known as Rose Atoll), and additional waters around Swains Island, Aunu`u Island, and Ta’u Island in Manu'a. These waters include some of the oldest and largest known corals in the world.
Throughout the meeting, Peau kept reiterating that fishing is prohibited in only 1% of the sanctuary’s waters. He further explained that the five new sites included in the sanctuary can benefit from monies collected from lawsuits against shipping companies, as they can submit requests for funds, but allocation of the monies is at the discretion of the federal government.
Peau said that in 2004, the American Samoa Government had no say as far as the distribution of money collected from fines being imposed on shipping companies found to be in violation of federal laws on local waters.
He said that in 2009, “we were given another chance” and now the door is open for the territory to get a share of the money by sending a request or plan to the federal government who has the final say in the matter.
When asked if the money goes straight to DOC or the ASG, Peau explained that the money from these settlements goes straight to the federal court, which then determines how the money is disbursed. “We have to submit a plan for them to review,” Peau explained.
He said that after an agreement with the feds, American Samoa got its first taste of money from issued citations last year when a vessel was fined $200,000 for marine violations.
This past month, Peau reported, two more tickets were issued, carrying fines of $500,000 and $200,000.
Eastern District Governor Alo Dr. Paul Stevenson said this is not an easy subject and wanted to know what benefit, as far as economic development is concerned, is there in store for the territory.?
“How can we survive during bad times?” he asked, adding that our people have survived for 2000 years because the life of a Samoan has always been dependent on the ocean and land.
Alo pointed out that while we are opening the door and allowing the feds to come in and help, the share of money the territory is getting from the citations is small. He said as far as he knows, over $10 million in citations have been issued for violations in local waters and American Samoa has only received a small piece of that. He said some of the money should be funneled to DMWR as well as programs that assist the territory. “If we are going to be prohibited from fishing in certain areas, there should be help available for the economic development,” Alo said, adding that some things need a little “twist” so it can be beneficial for everyone in the territory.
Peau explained that for many years, money from the citations was being sent off island and controlled by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He said last year, the money started coming in for the territory and Peau said that the areas included in the sanctuary will be used to funnel the funds to American Samoa. He added that in prior years, the money was split based on a 1:1 ratio but now, the territory gets a bigger share. He said requests for funds for projects and programs like excursions to Rose Island can be submitted to the federal government for approval. Peau pointed out that last year, the MV Sili was chartered and used to transport 60 children and adults for a short trip to Rose Island.
DOC director Keniseli Lafaele said their goal is to be persistent as far as fighting for money from the federal government and this is something his office will take a closer look at.
Deputy Secretary of Samoan Affairs Tuiagamoa Tavai concluded the meeting by urging the DOC officials to look closely at the issue. He reminded everyone not to be blinded by money but consider the needs of the territory’s people first. He said the livelihood of a Samoan has always revolved around free access to the ocean and that is something that needs to be taken into account.
New Zealand based Sanford Ltd., the owner of the fishing vessel San Nikunau, was sentenced in January at the US federal court, after the company was convicted last August 2012 of dumping oil waste into U.S. waters outside American Samoa and of falsifying records. The conviction is connected to the San Nikunau’s violations while in territorial waters.
Federal court records and a statement by the U.S. Justice Department say Sanford Ltd. was ordered to pay a criminal fine of $1.9 million and pay $500,000 in community service to the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation for the benefit of the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary in American Samoa.
(See tomorrow’s issue of the Samoa News for more details of the meeting).