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Fisheries Council hears why locally based US longline fleet declined Gov's Task Force invitation

US longline fleet based in American Samoa.

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Tautai-o-Samoa Longline & Fishing Association president, Christinna Lutu-Sanchez has told the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council the reasons behind the decision by the US longline fleet based in American Samoa, to decline participation in the Governor’s Fisheries Task Force.

Lutu-Sanchez, one of the three American Samoa members on the Council, not only gave a verbal explanation during last Thursday’s session of the Council meeting in Honolulu, but also submitted for official record, a letter sent to Fisheries Task Force chairman, Solip Hong.

During discussions on one of the issues at the Council meeting, a question was posed to Marine and Wildlife Resources director Va’amua Henry Sesepasara, who is the other American Samoa member on the Council, pertaining to the Large Vessel Prohibited Area (LVPA) in waters of American Samoa and the US longline fleet based in the territory.

Based on a directive from the governor, Va’amua explained that the longline fleet was invited but declined the invitation to the fisheries task force.

Lutu-Sanchez verbally responded and submitted for the record, a Nov. 7, 2018 letter she sent to Hong declining the invitation.

In the letter, Lutu-Sanchez noted that she was invited to the Task Force’s Nov. 6, 2018 meeting because the LVPA issue was on the agenda. However, after the association’s meeting earlier on Nov. 6th, “we  decided [to] decline your invitation... as we cannot discuss nor dispute the ongoing efforts by the federal government to assist the local longline fleet to access waters” in the LVPA.

She reminded Hong that Tautai had initiated several years ago, amendments to open up the LVPA “to address the direct economic situation” faced by the longline fleet. Since the initial request, the governor “has remained firm about not supporting any amendments — even if temporary — to the LVPA,” she wrote.

(Samoa News notes that Lutu-Sanchez is referring to the 2016 LVPA final rule by the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), reducing the LVPA to allow longliners to fish in these waters. At the same time, the rule allows for monitoring the LVPA every year. ASG was strongly opposed to the final rule and sued the NMFS at the federal court, which sided with ASG and the case is now on appeal).

According to Lutu-Sanchez, attending the task force meeting “will not benefit anyone as there are no terms to negotiate nor discuss”. She outlined several reasons why.

Among them, is that the LVPA issue is being considered at the federal court and the longline fleet is not a party to this litigation. Additionally, the Council has resubmitted its 2nd recommendation on the LVPA to NMFS and now being reviewed and processed for implementation.

(During a meeting in Maui, Hawai’i last June, the Council recommended a four-year exemption for vessels permitted under the American Samoa longline limited entry program to fish within the LVPA seaward of 12 nautical miles (nm) around Tutuila, Manu‘a and Swains Islands and 2 nm around offshore banks identified by local fishermen and members of the public in American Samoa during a public meeting in Pago Pago. See Samoa News June 15, 2018 edition for details.)

Lutu-Sanchez pointed out that the recent data for the Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission shows record catches of South pacific albacore in 2018. And more than 50% to 60% of this catch is attributed to Chinese-flagged vessels.

“On the other hand, the US fleet continues to be on a downward path and has caught less than 2% of the record catches experienced by everyone else [in 2018],” she explained. “Our US longliners continue to decrease in numbers and catches.

“We inquired on how we can resolve this matter of a disappearing fleet and what has been done in the other U.S. regions where their fisheries had died out,” she continued, and shared with Hong, some examples.

Among them is allowing US longliners in American Samoa to access fishing waters within the US exclusive economic zone, amending the LVPA, and removing fishing prohibitions for waters around the Rose Atoll Monument. These issues are under federal control.

Another example is government subsidies, which have been a way to relieve economic hardships and now allow a fishery to disappear. “While this is an example, we were further informed that the US government does not have a budget for this option,” she wrote. “However, the US has a large seafood deficit that the current administration is addressing and perhaps this could be a consideration in order to prevent further demise of this fishery.”

She noted that the US longline fleet targets South Pacific albacore for delivery directly to StarKist Samoa, and “survival of this fleet ensures continued US participation in this fishery.”

The third example she cited is “buy out/ shrinkage” saying “we are told that in some U.S. regions, the federal government has bought out fishing boats to either shrink or close those fisheries.”

While this is “obviously not an ideal situation” for StarKist Samoa — which is the longliners’ main customer — and the local economy, “this might be the only option for owners considering the performances and trends of the U.S. American Samoa longline fleet,” she wrote.

She said this example was explained as “an extreme measure with disastrous effects; however, one of the longline owners and some of the U.S tuna seiner owners have expressed interest in this example for their respective US fishing vessels that are presently operating and delivering to StarKist Samoa.”

She reminded Hong that StarKist needs US produced albacore by the US longliners and delivered directly to StarKist Samoa to supply U.S. government contracts.

Copies of Lutu-Sanchez’s letter were also sent to the governor and NMFS.