Eni: "U.S. tuna industry was “built on the backs of Samoans”
Tri Marine International dedicated its new cold storage unit last Friday during a ceremony where Congressman Faleomavaega Eni received applause when he told the audience that the U.S. tuna industry was “built on the backs of Samoans” and that women in the territory, are credited for the development of the local tuna industry.
Tri Marine revealed that if all goes well with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they are looking to get their federal permit by the end of next month to rebuild a seawall in order for them to start construction of its canned tuna operation.
Constructed by Paramount Builders, the 5,000 metric ton state-of-the-art cold storage building is located on the compound of Tri Marine’s local cannery operation, Samoa Tuna Processors in Atu’u.
Local government officials, private sector and the fishing industry as well as the Interior Department’s field representative were present for the ceremony, also attended by former Gov. Togiola Tulafono, who convinced the Bellevue, Wash. based Tri Marine to take over the site previously occupied by COS Samoa Packing, which shut down on Sept. 30. 2009.
Faleomavaega, who was first to address the gathering, said he is pleased that Curto, who has been in the tuna industry for some four decades, has decided to invest in American Samoa. The Congressman called the celebration Friday, a “historical event” for Tri Marine, which has made plans to invest well over $50 million to rebuild the former COS plant — and the investment in the freezer storage facility is over $5 million.
With Thailand still the world’s top tuna producer and exporter paying workers less than 75 cents an hour, as well as other low wage countries, such as Ecuador and Fiji, the Congressman said Curto, “despite all that, could have set up operations elsewhere. He didn’t have to come here to American Samoa.”
He said Curto choose to make a multi million dollar investment in American Samoa, “because he (Curto) believes in American Samoans tuna cannery workers, who made Chicken of the Sea and StarKist the brands that they are today.”
“The truth is, the U.S. tuna industry was built on the backs of Samoans and our workers are among the best in the world,” he said to applause from the crowd. “I have to say that people don’t realize that tuna processing is a labor intense task of work.”
The congressman then expressed a “special thanks” to local women, who are the foundation of this tuna industry and how it developed to where it is today. “They are the ones who stand 8 hours a day cleaning fish,” he said, to another round of applause from the audience.
All these 50 years of the tuna cannery industry in the territory, “it was the women of American Samoa that built these canneries. I want you to understand and appreciate that fact,” he told the audience, who responded with resounding applause.
Faleomavaega said he has had his own public criticism in the past regarding certain pension issues for long time workers at the cannery, especially the women workers.
“I’m sure we can make a better plan in giving our women a better sense of pension after 20 years of working in these canneries,” he said. “Mr. Curto I would not like to hear that they get paid only $120 [a month] in pension after working 20 years in our canneries. I hope you change that.” (The Congressman didn’t elaborate further on whose cannery pension plan pays this amount.)
The next phase for Tri Marine, is the cannery operation, that will introduce “niche markets… to improve the quality of canned tuna and I look forward to fully supporting Tri Marine’s efforts in this regard,” said Faleomavaega, who added that company has “many challenges ahead.”
He also said that Asian countries “are our biggest competition” as they offer low wages and it has become increasingly difficult for the United States, including American Samoa, to compete. “However, I am hopeful about our future because Mr. Curto is part of our team and partnership in this effort,” he said.
Additionally, Curto “is bringing fresh ideas and new vision for niche markets.” Thankfully, he said, American Samoa comes with unique benefits, like low fish costs due to direct access to fishing vessels since the territory is exempted from the federal Nicholson Act and Jones Act.
He reminded the audience that a tariff continues to protect American Samoa, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ‘Buy America program’ is helpful when it comes to federal government contracts.
“Hopefully, we will find alternative economic incentives at the federal and local levels, to replace the 30A [federal] tax incentives” that has been used in past years, he said.
“Whatever it takes, I believe American Samoa can withstand the test of time,” he added.
Curto said the cold storage is the first phase of the company’s “dream and planning” for its operations in American Samoa. “Cold storage is the heart of any tuna cannery operation,” he said. “What we are providing here is an opportunity for the boats, to come here unload and get out.” He said the boats need to return to fishing right away after unloading or else there is no money earned.
He shared with the audience that Tri Marine has been around for 42 years and today, the company has sales of $1.5 billion.
The next phase for the company is to construct its tuna cannery operation, which has been on hold awaiting permit approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconstruct a seawall next to the planned site of the tuna cannery.
He said the company has submitted a mitigation plan and has been approved by the Army Corps to ensure the protection of any marine life at the bottom of the sea in the area that will be part of seawall reconstruction.
He said a team of divers “will gently remove one-by-one, every single piece of marine wildlife (on the bottom of the ocean) and transplant it a few yards out and we’re going to make sure that the marine wildlife survives.”
“It’s a commitment that we’ve made and it’s going to be expensive, but we are willing to do that. It took us 20-months to get to this point. So hopefully, by the end of May [this year] we should have this permit,” he said.
Curto went on tell the audience of his “dream”, which is that “we’re going to have the best cannery in the entire South Pacific region. I know, because we’re committed to that.” He said Tri Marine needs the support of the new administration, the entire territory and those in Washington in order to move forward.
“We are committed governor and we’re here to stay, if you keep us and we would like to stay here doing something good for the territory,” he told Lolo. “We love American Samoa, its a great” territory.
In tomorrow’s edition, are some of the tuna fishing challenges faced by Tri Marine.