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Comments to NOAA heavily oppose expansion

The total number of comments submitted on the proposed rule by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to expand the current Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary (FBNMS) remains unclear, with last Friday the final day for comment submission. There has been a call, however, to extend the comment period for another 30-days.

The federal regulatory website receiving comments shows more than 100 comments but some of them are duplicates, while others came from comment cards given to residents who attended local public hearings on the proposals.

It should be noted, as previously reported by Samoa News, there is support for the expansion plan to further protect current marine resources and ensure they are not over fished, for future generations.

Several comments submitted last Friday show major opposition to the expansion, which would include five areas — Larsen Bay, waters around Swains Island and Muliava, also known as Rose Atoll, and some of the waters around Aunuu and Tau islands — and renames the sanctuary as the American Samoa National Marine Sanctuary.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance offered no comments on the proposal.

Perhaps one of the biggest complaints and concerns voiced by those who oppose the proposed rule is the lack of consultation with village councils for the affected areas of Larsen’s Bay, Aunu’u and Manu’a, before the proposal was even made public.

There was also a lot of criticism about the 2009 scoping meeting, in that it was not well advertised and not well attended.  Several comments state that the proposal’s executive summary is incorrect or untrue — in saying that a series of meetings generated strong and broad public support for the planned expansion.

Another issue of concern raised in the comments is the restriction placed on local fishing grounds, especially around Aunu’u. There was an interesting piece of information that came from one commenter with inside information regarding Aunu’u, saying the island-village was in the process of being considered as a potential marine protected area under the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources program of protected areas, or MPAs.

“It was a critical time for the program, when Fagatele Bay suddenly added Aunu’u onto their list of proposed sites with no justification and approached the village separately without informing DMWR,” according to the commenter, who works at DMWR, but provided the comment as a member of the community. “This resulted in confusion amongst the community and actually impacted DMWR’s public process heavily.”

In addition, lawmakers representing Aunu’u in the Senate and House voiced strong opposition to the proposed expansion, and the inclusion of Aunu’u.

In a joint 7-page letter commenting on the proposal, Saole county lawmakers — Sen. Fuata Dr. T. Iatala  and Rep. Tautolo Charlie Agaoleatu — informed NOAA that the  Aunu’u Village Council “unanimously opposes” the establishment of zones on waters around Aunu’u.

They say this move by NOAA restricts and/or deprives local fishermen, both recreational and commercial, of access to, and use of areas they have fished for generations. Additionally, many local residents depend on open access and use of these areas to sustain their families and support our culture and traditions.

“The Aunu’u Village Council... has met, discussed, and voted its unanimous opposition to establishment of these zones” around Aunu’u waters, it says, adding that this proposal to include Aunu’u was not initiated by “Aunu’u residents, but, significantly, was apparently the idea of FBNMS staff...”

“As anything but a local initiative, the proposed closure or restriction of these waters is tainted with what appears to be motivation of one or two self-interested individuals who are not from Aunu’u and who do not depend on these areas for a living,” the lawmakers said. “There was never proper consultation with the Village Council prior to moving forward with sanctuary designations for either of the zones around Aunu’u.”

They also outlined several concerns about the process in extending the sanctuary, saying that it’s the U.S. Congress that should have the final decision on lands and other resources in the territory, not NOAA. They further claim there are legal issues surrounding such proposals that should have been addressed first.

The lawmakers state that the authority to oversee these local matters — marine resources and marine protected ares — rests with DMWR, which is the same argument made by other commenters as well as Rep. Larry Sanitoa, who responded to the proposed rule on behalf of his Tualauta constituents.

Under local law, DMWR is empowered to manage, protect, preserve and perpetuate the marine and wildlife resources in the territory and NOAA’s proposed expansion “conflicts” with local statutes, said Sanitoa in his letter to NOAA. He also says that provision of local law clearly indicates the American Samoa Government (ASG) has a process in place with protective policies and the means to enforce federal regulations.

“The proposed expansion will impose and preempt ASG's right and attempts at self-governance and at best this plan is also a duplication of effort and a waste of money,” he said, adding that DMWR annually receives millions in funding for fisheries management, habitat protection, fisheries data collection, and most importantly, coral reef monitoring.

He recalled budget hearings last September where DMWR Director Ufagafa Ray Tulafono shared data collected and analyzed by marine scientists that “confirmed an increase and abundance in biomass for the major families of reef fishes over the last six years.”

“Basically this means we are not over fishing and our coral reef is in good shape,” said Sanitoa.

Several comments came from residents of Vaitogi, who are up in arms with not only the use of the name ‘Larsen’s Bay’ — when it has been called by residents as “Fogama’a” for years — but also the inclusion of this area, which belongs to Vaitogi families, and who were not consulted by NOAA.

Some commenters questioned the accuracy of statistics and data cited in the proposal. For example, under provision of Chapter Five of the draft proposal, title “Human Environment, Fisheries”, a commenter says the statement under this provision, which states that “expansion of sanctuary units will have no impact on commercial, subsistence or recreational fisheries” is totally unsupported — if not downright false.

“Even during the public hearings, the villagers in Vaitogi argued that closing Larsen’s Bay to fishing would drive them to fish in rougher and more dangerous waters perhaps endangering their lives in the process,” the commenter says.