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Fishery meeting highlights dispute between ASG and longliners over fishing grounds

[l-r] Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources director Va’amua Henry Sesepasasra along with Christinna Lutu-Sanchez and Taotasi Archie Soliai, are American Samoa’s three members of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WPRFMC) pictured last Friday in Honolulu on the final day of the three-day 172nd Meeting of the Council. Samoa News was able to follow the 3-day meeting via live-stream and is reporting the issues throughout the week. [photo: WPRFMC]
ASG rep says it’s a local problem, local longliner rep says it’s ‘political’

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The ongoing dispute in the territory between two fishery groups over the Large Vessel Prohibited Area (LVPA) “is a local problem... an American Samoa problem” to be resolved locally, declared Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources director Va’amua Henry Sesepasara at last Friday’s final day of the 172nd Meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council in Honolulu.

Council executive director Kitty M. Simonds noted that the LVPA issue affects people’s lives and livelihoods; while Longline Inc., president Christinna Lutu-Sanchez claims that ASG’s position is part of a political agenda and in the meantime the longliners are becoming an “endangered fleet.”

Va’amua (the ASG rep on the Council) and Lutu-Sanchez, along with StarKist Samoa official, Taotasi Archie Soliai are American Samoa’s three members on the Council, which was initially to act last Friday on amending the LVPA to help the struggling US longline fleet — vessels 50 feet and over — based in the territory.

Instead, the vote has been postponed until the June meeting on Maui island, Hawai’i, while four recommendations were passed, despite Va’amua casting the sole ‘no’ vote on all four recommendations, citing on advice from his legal team. (See yesterday’s edition for details).

Prior to the vote, Lutu-Sanchez reminded the Council of their "obligations to uphold the national standards” of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act “of ensuring optimum fish yield and supporting US fisheries all together.”

While she appreciates all the ongoing efforts in American Samoa for fisheries, “there hasn’t been any sincere attention to address the problem faced by the local [US] longline fleet,” Lutu-Sanchez said.

She called on the Council “not to forget the US longline fleet based in American Samoa. You don’t want that US fishery to disappear. You want to make sure it continues there. They are private investors [who] put their family monies to start that fishery. As you know it’s very difficult to establish a fishery.”

She recalled the charts and other information presented earlier in the week during the meeting showing the downward trend of the US longline fleet, which is down to 12 vessels as of early this year.

She wondered out loud if some Council members are asking themselves, “those guys are crazy, what are they still doing, operating out there? And the answer is very simple. The remaining longliner operators are American Samoans. Those are the only ones left there.”

She noted with concern another report presented during the meeting, which indicates that “there's a perception” in the territory from others including alia fishermen, “that local longline owners may not be entirely indigenous.”

“They are as indigenous as you see me here,” she informed Council members. “I can tell you, that I’m definitely American Samoan and a US citizen. And the other owners are the same. It’s a US fishery and they need help.”

She explained that the request for LVPA exemption is to provide some relief access to fishing grounds for the longline fleet.

“Access to fishing grounds is important. We hear the purse seiner owners talk about it,” she said, and she is “so happy” that ASG leaders “work very diligently to help the purse seiner owners get that access [to fishing grounds].” (She is referring to fishing grounds on high seas for purse seiners.)

She asked that ASG “do the same for the longline owners, in our own waters.” She said data provided at the meeting shows a downward trend to the locally based US fleet and the fleet is “going towards the direction of... becoming an endangered fleet.”

Lutu-Sanchez claimed that the local US longline fleet “have now become victims of this bigger mission” — whether by ASG or the leaders — “they have found this wonderful opportunity to create a legacy, or use it as a vehicle to gain a bigger political agenda.”

“And it's really unfortunate, because if you start politicizing things, then it becomes complicated,” she said, adding that the longline request for use of certain areas of the LVPA “is to provide relief and access to fishing grounds for a US fleet operating in American Samoa by American Samoans.”

Council chairman Edwin Ebisui Jr, weighed in on the discussion, saying “fishery management is always a dynamic process. It doesn’t sit still, it’s a constant review, re-evaluation. Things change. There was a time and place for the LVPA separation of the alia fleet and the larger vessels but that’s no longer the case nowadays.”

“With all do respect to the American Samoa government, I feel that we are bound, to respond to the request of the longliners and maximize the national benefits of the fisheries to the United States. And that is by reduction of the LVPA,” he said.

Taotasi, in his remarks, reiterated what he told the Council at last October’s meeting, “This is a very contentious issue. It’s been a very sensitive issue, not only at these [Council] meetings, but on island.”

He reiterated that StarKist would not take sides on this matter. However, the one thing that's certain — based on presentations at the Council meeting — the decline in vessels and this “also translates into a decline in fish supply.”

“To sum it up … no fish means, no production,” he declared and “essentially that means no StarKist, essentially that would mean no jobs. And it’s very important that we provide support for the fish supplier.”

“The US flagged fleet that catches South Pacific albacore is very critical on some of the brands that StarKist produces. It’s very critical. Some of these US caught albacore, we need them for contracts [such as] school lunch contracts, military contracts and some of the other brands,” he explained.

“It's very important that we continue to receive some supply from these US flagged vessels and it's important that we provide some sort of relief and assistance,” he added.

As for ASG’s position on the matter, Taotasi said, “We are very respectful of the position that they’ve taken.” However, looking from a business perspective, regarding the supplier, “there’s very limited” US flagged vessels that supply South Pacific albacore.

Va’amua pointed out that “this problem here, is an American Samoa problem” and “I would not label this as a political problem, or anybody seeking a legacy, or to be famous.”

He said, “But it is a local problem — [between] American Samoa’s two fishing groups,” referring to the locally based US longliner and the alia fleet — in which the LVPA was established in 2002 for the latter.

Va’amua said he was hoping that the Council would give American Samoa a chance to work out a resolution and present it to the Council at a later meeting, because this is what Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga wanted to do in the Council meeting held last October.

Additionally, the governor had asked his fishery task force to ensure that someone from the longliner association is part of the task force “so we can sit down, find out all the issues and then make a recommendation to the governor,” he said, and noted one of the owners of the large vessel longliners was sent a letter by the governor to be on the task force but had turned it down.

Va’amua said it’s the governor’s wish to have the two groups - longliners and alia - sit together for discussion and present the information to the governor, who would then make a recommendation to the Council. (Both Va’amua and Taotasi are members of the task force.)

Ebisui said, “I don’t think there’s anything that prevents the governor from continuing on this course” while the Council continues with its work.

Va’amua responded that the task force could meet again to maybe write a letter to the local longliners association for a representative to sit on the task force, as well as a member from the local alia fishermen association.

As to Lutu-Sanchez’s comments about the government helping the purse seiner fleet, Va’amua said, “We cannot compare this to the purse seiners.”

But he agreed with Lutu-Sanchez that government “went out and helped the purse seiner”,  but that’s an “international problem. This is American Samoa’s problem and should be handled within our territory.”

Simonds said to Va’amua, “I know it’s your problem, but we have a federal fishery.”

“It’s affecting people’s lives, livelihoods and the way people look at each other,” she said, referring to a Council presentation on Thursday where the local perception is that longliners are not American Samoans. “We need to get these groups together so the alia group will understand that Christinna and others are Samoans.”

Lutu-Sanchez said she is glad to hear that the governor has interest in getting the two groups — alia and local US longliners — together.

She said the Council was supposed to take final action on the LVPA amendment, but language of the four recommendations has changed and the matter has been kicked back to American Samoa.

“If anything, I should be more upset, but it's the reality that we have and live in,” she said, noting that the text of the recommendations, basically asked the “American Samoa leaders to bring different stakeholders together and try to resolve it, which is in agreement with what the director [Va’amua] has just stated.”