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Local benefits for being a part of the national marine sanctuaries highlighted at meeting

Issues concerning the expansion of the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa were highlighted during a public meeting held at the Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center on Monday morning, where focus was on the benefits of being a part of the national marine sanctuaries.


Deputy Director of the Department of Commerce Lelei Peau presented a slideshow for the program, where each of the NMSAS sites, including the expansion sites, was pictured along with explanations on how they benefit from being included as part of the sanctuary.


The areas of expansions are: Fagalua/Fogama’a, waters around Muliāva (also known as Rose Atoll), and additional waters around Swains Island, Aunu`u Island and Ta’u Island.


For Fagalua/Fogama’a, Peau explained that fishing for food in this area is permitted, but the methods used cannot pose a danger to sea life. He said the goal is to send local kids off island on scholarship to pursue degrees that specialize in the study of marine life so we would no longer have to depend on contractors from off island to carry out the job.


As for Aunu’u, Peau said there is concern that reports are not the same as the plan that was submitted to the feds about this area. He said there is an area in Aunu’u waters that is used for research to track strong winds, like measuring sea temperature and wind force. Under the sanctuary expansion, the Aunu’u unit is set up under Zone A and B.


Zone A  is the Multiple Use Zone, and would require any vessel operator to notify the National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) office or its designee in the village of Aunu’u prior to each fishing trip.


According to Gov. Lolo M. Moliga, this requirement is not linked to any requirement to provide catch data which then calls into question why this provision is in place for Zone A.


In a letter the governor wrote last month to Rebecca Blank, the acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, whose bureaus and offices include the National Marine Sanctuary Office, he said there is a long established and well maintained fishery data collection program under the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) and if this requirement for Zone A is maintained, he wants to modify the reporting process for fishermen to report to DMWR “rather than the NMS office, which does not have the experience with fishery monitoring.”


Lolo is requesting the federal government to reconsider the inclusion of Aunu’u waters in the sanctuary, saying Aunu’u is surrounded by an extensive coral reef and reef slope, which are important fishing grounds for its residents as well as fishermen from Tutuila.


Peau said during the meeting that Zone A can be used for game fishing but residents should have prior notification, and data has to be collected, including how many boats are participating and how much fish is caught.


Aunu’u’s Zone B is the Research Zone, which would prohibit the harvest of marine resources except for trolling and surface fishing. According to Lolo, no research plan has been provided to justify this restriction and “we assume that the main purpose” of this zone is to enable researchers to observe natural variation in a coral reef ecosystem in the absence of fishing.


Without a research plan, Lolo said in his letter that it’s difficult to see how this zone benefits the people of American Samoa, “who have been disenfranchised of their patrimony and rights to fish on their reefs and associated fishing grounds."


Lolo is requesting that fishing for bottom-fish also be permitted in addition to trolling "as deep-slope bottom-fish comprise a relatively narrow complex of deep water snappers, emperors and groupers that live beyond the area of live corals on the deep reef slope."


The area adjacent to Aunu’u that is encompassed by Zone B is a primary fishing ground for local bottom-fish fishermen and according to the governor, bottom-fish as a whole in American Samoa “is  in extremely good shape” based on a recent stock assessment conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Services.


Peau did not go into detail about Zone B, only saying that fishing is permitted there.


As for Ta’u, Manu’a, Peau said they believe the biggest coral in the world is located there. He said the coral stands 2-3 stories high and is estimated to be about a 100 years old. He added that fishing is permitted in Ta’u, and youngsters can swim in the water and use the site for science research. He said there is a need to protect the coral and continue studying it.


The DOC deputy director explained that there has been a request from officials of Swains Island to assist them in placing Swains Island under the protection of the sanctuary. He said fishing is permitted there but there is still research to be conducted in the area.


Peau said there have been a lot of complaints from people regarding Muliava (Rose Atoll), which is located about 60 miles from Ta‘u, Manu‘a.


He explained that back during the time of US President Ronald Reagan, a Fono resolution was submitted, placing the Rose Atoll under the federal government. Peau said there is an issue involving a high number of foreign flagged vessels fishing there without a permit from the American Samoa Government. He said these vessels have only one purpose in mind, and that is to take as much fish as they can, without any consideration for damages caused by oil spills.


When asked about possibly traveling to visit the sites that are located far away from Tutuila, Peau said such requests could be funded with monies collected from penalties imposed on shipping companies who are cited for violations on local waters. A request just has to be made, as all the money is in the custody of the federal court, which determines how the money is spent.


Peau said when the territory got its first share of money from the citations issued by the US Coast Guard (a settlement of $200,000), the MV Sili was chartered to carry 60 children and adults for an excursion to the Rose Atoll.


Peau said a representative of the federal government was scheduled to arrive last night and will be available to speak with anyone with questions about economic development in the 5 new sites that have been included in the NMSAS.


A representative from Tula village, after hearing Peau explain that money from settlements can be used for projects proposed from the 5 new additions to the NMSAS, asked about how Tula can be included in the expansion plan. Peau explained that there are a lot of criteria involved and they have looked at a number of sites. He advised that DMWR be contacted for more information.


Western District Governor Lualemaga Faoa said he felt sorry for those villages that are landlocked and said anyone from those villages who want to fish can come to his village of Aasu and fish all they want, up to 100 miles out to the open ocean as there are no restrictions placed on fishing there.


He said this issue has been unresolved for the past 20 years and told DOC officials that their office should have addressed this “a long time ago.”