Fish supply remains a big challenge for StarKist
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Fish supply shortages remain a challenge at StarKist Samoa, which has encountered the same issues over the last two years, continuing into the first quarter of this year, according to company official Taotasi Archie Soliai, who told last week’s meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council in Honolulu that freezer space also is a continuing challenge.
An update status of StarKist Samoa and Tri Marine’s Samoa Tuna Processors Inc., were among the several matters on the “ American Samoa Archipelago” agenda for the Council’s three-day meeting in Honolulu which closed last Friday, where many fisheries issues in the territory were discussed.
Taotasi, who is one of the three American Samoa members on the Council, presented on StarKist Samoa, recalling for the meeting, which was streamed live online, that the cannery was closed for five weeks for upgrades to machinery and equipment from October last year to after Thanksgiving in November 2017.
Additionally, the cannery underwent its annual end of the year shutdown last December into the first week of January 2018.
Taotasi explained that the year 2017 challenges were similar to those faced by the cannery the year before, noting that “some of it had to do with fish supply” — for example, 2016 the plant had “some closure” due to supply issues and this was similar in 2017.
“It was more of the same, with respect to albacore supply — there was a shortage in 2016 and into 2017. And the first quarter of 2018 we’re experiencing shortage with albacore as well,” he said and recalled a Council presentation on Thursday showing that the number of vessels that provide albacore for the cannery went from about 60 to about 14 vessels at the moment — local vessels that do provide albacore.
“So it continues to be a challenge,” he said and reminded Council members that it was on Wednesday, that he mentioned and commended the US Coast Guard for their “efforts trying to provide some assistance to a carrier (vessel)... and Coast Guard has been very helpful in trying to facilitate that carrier delivering directly [to the cannery].
While he didn’t provide additional details on the carrier, Taotasi did say, “We’re still in negotiations with them at the moment and hopefully within a week, they’ll be able to give some indication with respect to delivering to the [cannery] plant.”
He added that “one of the issues that we’re currently going through” is freezer space. He said the company started last October, during the five-week shutdown, upgrading its freezers, with the work already completed for one of the two freezers. He explained that it takes 4 1/2 months to upgrade the freezers.
Work in repairing and upgrading the second freezer has already begun and hopefully it should be completed by the end of May this year, he said.
However, “we’re seeing a lot of vessels being backed-up — some purse seiners waiting in port for weeks at a time, waiting to be unloaded because we’re very restrictive with respect to freezer space,” he explained.
Taotasi confirmed that StarKist is “currently using part” of the Samoa Tuna Processors cold storage freezer “to try to accommodate some of that volume that’s coming in.”
“That challenge is still going to continue and we’re very thankful that the purse seiners are patient while we try to upgrade the facility,” he said, but he didn’t speak on StarKist Inc. efforts to secure a land lease with ASG to build a new freezer facility.
One Council member noted that it seems that there’s been some investment by the cannery with the freezer facilities being repaired and upgraded. “Can that be perceived as a good sign that the company is investing in the Samoan cannery, good things are to come...?” the member asked, to which Taotasi responded, “Certainly... those are some of the investments the company has done.”
Taotasi said this is “an indication that the company is still investing and still wants to do business in American Samoa, as long as it remains competitive.”
“All the other challenges we continue to face — whether it be local or federal or from supply — are still challenges that we still face,” he said, adding that “we’re investing and still interested in, and continue investment into American Samoa.”
StarKist along with American Samoa have been faced with many challenges this past year, particularly due to federal regulations in areas such as restrictions on fishing grounds impacting fish supply, federally mandated minimum wage increases, and federal tax benefits.
Despite the many issues working against American Samoa, StarKist said last month that it remains committed to working with territorial leaders, “and the people of American Samoa to ensure a globally competitive and viable economic environment for conducting business in the territory.”
At last October’s 171th Meeting held in Pago Pago, the Council recommended that Tri Marine give an update on its operation in American Samoa, where it maintains the STP plant, although the cannery side shut down in December 2016.
The Council was informed last Friday that the plant is utilized as a “logistics hub” with limited operations. For example, STP continues to operate its dock as well as one of its cold storage units with a capacity in excess of 5,500 metric tons. Additionally, the company’s wastewater treatment plant is still operational; purse seiner vessel unloading is ongoing; including fish grading and storage and fish test sampling (histamine, salt e.g.)
Tri Marine chief operation officer, Joe Hamby told Samoa News last week that the future of STP “is uncertain”.