“Celebrity Fish Cleaning” segment adds focus on skilled work force
While the canned tuna industry is already faced with the low price of fish affecting the cost of canned tuna products — and stiff competition from low wage countries — the local industry is facing a new threat that Tri Marine International chief executive officer Renato Curto says will “create for us a new power competitor” — referring to the European Union (EU).
Curto made the comments during Saturday’s “official inauguration” of the company’s Samoa Tuna Processors Inc., $70 million state-of-the art cannery plant in Atu’u and part of the ceremony included a “celebrity fish cleaning” segment which took place before the celebration got underway at 12noon.
According to the Tri Marine boss, the inauguration is an exciting day for both Tri Marine and American Samoa, adding that for him personally, the plant has been four years in the making and is the culmination of his lifetime work and personal quest.
Getting the operations up and running was never easy, with “many challenges along the way," he acknowledged.
"It took a lot of study, hard work and determination”, he said, and noted that “some people even questioned our intention from the beginning”.
He expressed special thanks to Gov. Lolo M. Moliga and the current administration for their strong support of this dream.
The company is currently faced with shipping delays due to the congestion at the U.S. west coast’s main ports in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle. Because of the delay in shipment of containers, the cannery plant is not yet ready to function, but the company is anxious to get everything in place, according to Curto, adding that they are looking at next month to start plant operations.
(Samoa News should note that it was also due to the delay of the shipments from the West Coast that prompted Tri Marine to postpone the inauguration, which was originally set for early this month.)
Curto went on to say that one of Tri-Marine's strengths is that its cannery is located in the South Pacific, which is the world's largest fishing ground. “The fishing boats that are owned or contracted to Tri Marine can land their catch directly here,” he said.
Regarding export markets, Curto said that while its tuna product’s main export with duty free excess is the U.S., there are other markets, like the European Union, which is currently undergoing free trade agreement negotiations with the U.S.
He is hopeful that during these negotiations, American Samoa will be included as a qualified producer U.S. territory, so that canned tuna products produced in the territory can get free access to European markets.
However, if the territory is excluded, it “will create for us a new power competitor which will be added to the list of strong competitors that we already have” — such as countries like Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, China and Thailand — with their “lower costs for labor, packaging materials and energy.”
With the support of ASG, the company is hopeful that American Samoa is included in U.S. and EU treaty negotiations or any other U.S. free trade agreements with other countries, he said.
Curto also spoke of another challenge: the price of fish.
He said this was taken into account when planning the American Samoa plant, adding that the price of tuna is currently low — less than half of what is was two years ago — however the price of tuna is something that they cannot control.
Curto noted the reason for the low price, is that there are simply too many fishing boats out there.
“When tuna prices are low, as you can understand, all the components, the cost of the tuna can, becomes more significant. Labor for one, and electricity, water, packaging material,” he explained.
According to the Tri Marine boss, the company, which has a fleet of ten U.S. flagged purse seiners based in the territory, needs more access to the fishing grounds in the region for vessels that are based here, and that access also helps StarKist Samoa.
“We hope that American Samoa’s island neighbors will provide more access as it supports jobs and businesses in American Samoa and in other island communities,” he said, noting that resource owners hold the keys to other benefits such as job creation.
This is why Tri Marine has been working with nations such as Kiribati, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Cook Islands, he said, “to develop mutually beneficial joint ventures connected to American Samoa and our tuna processing industry here.”
Regarding job creation, Curto told the audience that he fully understands the significance of new jobs the cannery will be providing. He recalled that he has heard from local leaders, especially Lolo and former Gov. Togiola, expressing the importance of creating more jobs for residents.
He said that American Samoa is blessed with the infrastructure and resources that enable the company to provide jobs in the territory. (The company has said it is looking at some 1,500 new jobs when the plant is fully operational.)
“We are especially proud to provide jobs to a workforce that is good or better as any other and as committed as we are to make this venture a success,” Curto said and thanked the many people in the government, private sector and those off island who contributed to helping the company with its local operations.
Curto was generous in his recognition and thanks to former Governor Togiola Tulafono — who attended the event with his wife Maryann — for “his vision, his support and his determination to create a new future” for both American samoa and Tri Marine.
Curto said he is also “very grateful” to former Congressman Faleomavaega Eni for his long-time “unwavering support” and he is hopeful that new Congresswoman Aumua Amata will offer the same support. (Aumua was represented by Pulu Ae Ae Jr., her chief of staff for the District Office in the territory).
Several off island guests were also in attendance, including New Zealand Ambassador for Pacific Island Development Shane Jones; Kitty Simonds, the executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council; top officials of Dongwon Industries — owner of StarKist Co., and StarKist Samoa along with StarKist officials; and the managing director of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) office.
In closing, Curto said the “risks and challenges facing us remain ultimately with the consumer [who] will decide the future of this plant and the level of production we will be able to have.”
He added that Tri Marine can help consumers by producing “good quality products from sustainably caught fish in the most cost-efficient way while proclaiming proudly, this is a product of American Samoa."
"With your help we will succeed.”
He closed by thanking the people of American Samoa “for always being so nice and kind to us and making us feel like we are at home.”
In his special remarks during the opening, Governor Lolo expressed his appreciation to officials of the Pacific region who attended the ceremony, saying that “there is no doubt in my mind that your help is very much needed with respect to allowing fishing vessels supplying fish to our canneries to fish within your exclusive economic zones.”
“I look forward to collaborating with you on regional issues and programs that will foster the generation of mutually economic benefits and economic opportunity for our respective people,” he said.
See previous report posted Sunday for other speeches and look for more photos in slideshow posted soon.
In the video below, Samoa Tuna Processors Inc., choir - made up of company employees - sang hymns during Saturday’s inaguration ceremony of the cannery plant in Atu’u. [video: Fili Sapolutele]