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OP-ED: Protecting Sharks and Three Other Rare Fish in American Samoa

Governor Toniola has signed an Executive Order banning the taking and possession of all sharks plus three other kinds of reef fish. Now the Dept. Marine & Wildlife Resources is considering regulations to implement the ban, and accepting comments.

Marine biologists (scientists) in Marine & Wildlife, NOAA, and National Parks have been gathering information on these fish for several years.  We have found out that some kinds of reef sharks are very rare here, as are bumphead parrotfish and giant groupers. We realize that if someone should happen to catch the last ones, there would be none left for future generations. There must be at least two, a boy and a girl, to produce young.  Without that they will permanently die out and there will be none for our children and grandchildren.

Bumphead parrotfish are so rare that all of the surveys by all the scientists in the whole territory only find about one a year.  A fisherman recently said that in 40 years of fishing he had never seen one.  Four people say that decades ago they each saw a different small school of them.

There are three kinds of sharks on our reefs that are uncommon, but not extremely rare.  They are blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, and grey reef sharks.  In addition, humphead wrasse is a large fish that is uncommon but not extremely rare here.  All of these fish are more common around very remote tiny islands hundreds of miles from any people than they are here. Several different things probably contribute to that, including fishing and different habitat. 

A recent study by NOAA scientists found that we have about 4-8% of the sharks we would have if there were no people here.  That indicates that if we protected them, we could get more.  If we had more, we could allow fishermen to take more than are taken now, and still maintain those higher numbers if we controlled the fishing for them.  This is what we want to do.  We think that very few of these fish are being caught now, because there are so few of them, so it will not impact fishermen much.

The Executive Order makes it illegal to catch or possess any shark of any kind, anywhere in the territory, at any time.  The same applies to humphead wrasse, bumphead parrotfish, and giant grouper.  Also, it is illegal to possess any part of any of these fish, including shark fins, so shark fin soup is now illegal. We know that sometimes these fish are caught on hook and line unintentionally, and that is not illegal. But if one is caught, it must be released immediately with a minimum of harm.

The proposed DMWR regulations say the same things. We will review the condition of these fish every three years to find out if they have recovered, so that we can open them to controlled fishing once they have recovered.

The Executive Order and the DMWR regulations are designed to protect the rare species from going extinct, and to speed the recovery of the ones that are not rare as much as possible, so that more can be caught in the future. We believe that for a small sacrifice in the present, there can be more fish for all to catch in the future.  So we are doing this for both the fishermen and the health of the reefs.



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