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Owners of the local fishing fleet are asking Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga to consider reviewing the arrangements and costs that are currently imposed on vessels ported here in American Samoa, specifically the longliners that are part of the American Samoa fleet and owned by American Samoans or people who reside in American Samoa.


In a Feb. 6 letter to Governor Lolo from the Tautai o Samoa Longline and Fishing Association, the fishing boat owners wrote, "At this time, most of our vessels are tied up mainly due to dramatic decreased fish prices that make it not possible for us to break even when taking into consideration current catch rates, increased fuel prices, bait prices, and general supplies."


In addition, the Association points out that the price of albacore has dropped by almost $1,000 per metric ton.


Former official of the American Samoa Shipyard Services Authority and local fishing vessel owner Carlos Sanchez says there has been a lot of talk about the protection and survival of corals and sanctuaries, but there has been nothing about helping the fishing fleet survive. He says that for months, the association has been trying to get the government to listen to their concerns, and vessel owners would like the Governor to help by reducing or waiving some of the port charges.


Sanchez said they want to discuss these issues with the newly appointed directors, starting with the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources; but, after requesting an appointment for almost two weeks, they still have not been able to speak with DMWR director Dr. Ruth Matagi Tofiga.


 "Right now, the American Samoa longline fleet is the biggest endangered species, but no one has any interest in the survival of this US fleet, only to regulate it," Sanchez said.


The Association has gone as far as writing a letter to Justin Yu, Senior Manager of Seafood Procurement of Star Kist Seafoods Inc., telling him that the longline fleet owners and operators residing in American Samoa have met and come to a general agreement regarding the critical issue of the current fish price status.


 "We comprehend your situation with regards to the current global market situation. However, taking into consideration the continuous decline in albacore prices, the current low catch rate, the increasing cost of fuel, bait, plus other operating costs, it has become financially unfeasible to continue operations at this time," the Association wrote in a Feb. 7 letter to Yu.


"Having mentioned these factors, the local longline fleet owners and operators have come to a general consensus that we are left with no other alternative but to hold vessels currently in port as well as other vessels at sea, once their current trip is completed, until the albacore price rises to the point where the boats can be profitable again."


The Association thanked Yu for his efforts with the price increases for yellowfin, bigeye and skipjack, but added that "this is far from sufficient to cover operation costs." They are requesting that Yu review and reconsider further improvement on these prices. Meanwhile, the Association says it will continue to seek Start Kist's position on a separate price classification for fish caught by US- flagged vessels required for US military and other US federally funded programs.


The Association have informed Governor Lolo that they have written to Star Kist officials expressing their concerns and informing them that they simply cannot survive with the current fish prices. "The responses that we have received so far have been very bleak," the Association told the Governor.


One of the concerns raised by the Association to the governor is that of vessel clearance requirements. The Association points out that their vessels are US-flagged vessels, and American Samoa serves as the homeport for these vessels.


"If our vessels do not go outside of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), why do we need to go through the clearance process each time?" the Association asked, adding that vessels fishing in Honolulu do not go through this procedure.


"We understand that this must be done for foreign-flagged vessels or US vessels that were outside of our EEZ, but our vessels fish within our EEZ the same way the alias [type of vessel] fish within our oceans. The alias do not need to go through a clearance process every time they come back to port to unload their catch."


With regards to port charges, the Association says there are numerous port charges for vessels that call into the local port. "We ask your consideration to relieve some of these charges or waive them for the local fleet. Our vessels are always here, and we will always pay. Yet, we are charged the full cost on all fees. This is not the same for government boats and/ or other vessels that are given special relief. These vessels come here maybe once or twice a year? We would appreciate the opportunity to review such charges with your staff or to discuss this further with you if possible."


According to the Association, the American Samoa longliners are like children without a home. "We are too small to carry any weight on the main dock, so whenever a large vessel comes into port, we have to scramble to find docking space; yet when our vessels are sent to the marina dock, we have to pay twice as much to dock there in addition to the costs charged by Port Administration."


The Association claims that for the past few years, they have been requesting the opportunity to have their interests represented on the Western Pacific Fishery Region Management Council, on behalf of the territory.


 "American Samoa is the capital of the tuna industry in the western Pacific, yet, there has not been anyone representing the concerns of the commercial fishing sector in American Samoa on the Council," the Association points out. They said resumes were submitted to Mr. Doug Fiaui last year when a seat became vacant, and they are still awaiting nominations for the council.


"We understand that there are now two seats vacant. We are interested in occupying both seats, if possible, as we believe that American Samoa needs strong representation on the Council to protect American Samoa's interests."


The council meeting this year in March will be held here in American Samoa. and the Association will be presenting a list of issues to the council for consideration.


Copies of the Association’s letter were forwarded to Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga, Attorney General Afoa Moega Lutu, Department of Commerce director Keniseli Lafaele, DMWR director Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga, and Port Administration director Taimalelagi Dr. Claire Tuia-Poumele.