Fed permitting process for Tri Marine drags on
With just 60 employees, Tri Marine’s tuna canning plant in Atu’u is nothing like the former Samoa Packing plant that employed more than 2000 workers before closing down in September 2009.
The plant site is anything but sleepy, however, as work progresses on the $55 million transformation of the cramped industrial site.
Tri Marine officials say they hope to increase their workforce to between 1,200-1,500 people by the end of 2014, but the company’s timeline for hiring workers is dependent on obtaining a federal permit to rebuild a seawall and fill in some shallow harbor lands. Once the permit is received, 16 months of complicated retrofitting and construction will change the existing dilapidated buildings into a modern tuna cannery.
“We feel a sense of urgency to get started with our cannery and move beyond our current practice of exporting the tuna our local fleet catches to be processed elsewhere,” emphasized Alfonso Pete Galeai of Tri Marine. “Every day of delay costs the company money; we hope to receive the federal approval by the end of April.”
One construction project is almost complete. Invisible from the road, dozens of workers from Paramount Builders and other construction companies are putting the finishing touches on a large cold storage building that will more than double the freezer-capacity of Tri Marine.
The new building, which will be dedicated on April 12, will hold 5,000 tons of frozen fish, or the equivalent of four full purse-seiner loads. The large freezer capacity will decrease the need for “reefer-ships” in the harbor and help Tri Marine realize its vision of Pago Pago as its hub for South Pacific fisheries.
But a cold storage building, even a state-of-the-art $10 million beauty like Tri Marine is building, doesn’t provide hundreds of jobs for American Samoan residents.
Only a new cannery can provide that level of jobs. A year ago, Tri Marine said it was going to build a new state-of-the-art tuna cannery in two phases, and phase one would provide 500-800 jobs. Then, in August 2012, the company decided to consolidate the two phases and build out the entire new cannery at one time. The new plans call for a plant that employs as many as 1,500 workers, divided into two production shifts and one late-night clean-up crew.
Work on the cannery part of the construction project has been limited so far. From the vantage point of the main road it does not appear as if anything has been done since Samoa Packing decamped for Georgia. In fact, the area looks worse than it ever has. But behind the ugly walls, extensive demolition and clean up has already taken place.
Once inside the walls, a visitor immediately notices that the old buildings have been emptied of old equipment and cleaned up. In fact, 20 containers of salvaged material have been shipped off for recycling, but none of the old, discarded cannery equipment has been replaced. What’s going on?
“We are waiting for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” explains Dan Sullivan, a Tri Marine executive who has a long history in American Samoa.
“We have plans drawn up for a new cannery that will be built inside the shells of the existing structures, but we are not going to start on that part of the project until we get the federal permit for the seawall and the infill. The small piece of new infill land is crucial to the design of our new cannery,” said Ian Boatwood, the General Manager in Atu’u.
Tri Marine applied for the federal permit two years ago and is hopeful that the final review is underway and a favorable decision will be made next month. Governor Lolo Moliga recently urged the Army Corps to expedite the permit review, because he says that critical economic development initiatives, such as Tri Marine’s, are being held back by the lengthy review process.
One remarkable feature of the plans for the new cannery is the specification of air-conditioned workspaces for the fish cleaners. StarKist Samoa has an air-conditioned area for one small portion of its fish cleaning crew, but Tri Marine intends to put all its fish cleaners in climate-controlled rooms.
Another welcome feature of the plans, which should start soon, is the recladding of all its buildings so that the Tri Marine facility will present a more pleasing appearance to travelers on the main road.
The new tuna cannery is designed to process 250-300 tons of fish each day, which is slightly less than Samoa Packing processed in the past. The company presently plans to purchase its power from ASPA, whereas Samoa Packing had at times generated its own power.
One part of the new plant is being established as a fresh fish processing center, rather than a cannery. The center, which is in pilot stages right now, prepares premium albacore and yellow fin tuna for the overseas fresh fish market. The carefully handled fish, which is purchased mostly from foreign flag longliners, is sent out via the Friday air cargo flight to Japan and the U.S. west coast.
When operating at full capacity, Tri Marine hopes to ship out 10-20 tons per week of fresh fish (the air cargo plane can handle 18-tons each week at present). Although the quantity is small, the price paid for this premium product is very high.
The fresh fish project has already started, but it has been highly variable as supply from the local fleet is not consistent. One unusual week, 14 tons were shipped out via the airfreight service.
Tri Marine hopes to get consistent supplies of high quality fresh fish from the local alia and longliner fleets, but the local fleet lacks the on-board ice-making capability needed for that product. The Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council, along with the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, have agreed to help the local fleet by paying part of the cost for a new low-height jetty at Tri Marine where alias can easily offload their fish, and special fish-handling training for local fishermen. The expensive equipment for on-board ice-making is still a missing part of the equation, according to Carlos Sanchez, who owns several longliners and alias and is hopeful that programs will be implemented to help local boat owners finance ice-making equipment for their boats.
(In addition, StarKist Samoa has raised a concern that the new jetty, which is partially funded with public money, appears to be favoring its competitor, but SKS doesn’t have a program to buy fresh fish from the small alia fleet, which is presently largely inactive.)
While Tri Marine works on its Atu’u site, the company continues to manage its fleet of 10 locally based purse seiners. The catches from these seiners are either sold to StarKist Samoa or shipped out of the territory on “reefer ships” which load the frozen fish while purse seiners tie up alongside reefer ships anchored in Pago Pago harbor.
When the new cold storage building is commissioned next month, all the fish can be offloaded directly at the Tri Marine dock and placed in the cold storage until it is exported. When the new cannery is built and made operational, the frozen fish can then be shifted from the dock (or cold storage building) directly to the cannery, or sold to StarKist, or exported.
This flexibility is key to Tri Marine’s plans. Although Tri Marine operates canneries in other locales, its main business is the buying and selling of fish on a global scale. In fact, the company claims to handle 15% of the worldwide tuna catch one way or another.
The privately owned company says it is going to make Pago Pago a “hub” for fishing and processing operation in this part of the world. Tri Marine believes that in the past, the tuna fishing industry in this part of the Pacific was based on a simple framework: countries and regional bodies sold fishing licenses and US purse seiners were able to buy them with federal subsidies.
Tri Marine believes that the owners of the fish resources (i.e., South Pacific countries) want to be more active in the management of their valuable fish resources and want to earn more money and derive more value (e.g., employment for their citizens) from those resources.
But Tri Marine says that not every country is able to host a tuna cannery for various reasons (e.g., lack of water) and they believe Pago Pago is the best place to operate a comprehensive center for unloading fishing boats, fleet support, tuna processing, accepting premium fresh fish, and managing the fishery in this part of the Pacific (just as Papua New Guinea is the best alternative in that part of the Pacific).
Tri Marine is encouraging other countries--such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Niue-- to view an American Samoa hub as an asset in the development of their fishing resources. Tri Marine says the large investment they are making here is part of their strategy to secure a consistent, stable supply of fish for many years to come. Tri Marine believes this strategy will provide them with a competitive advantage as fish become scarcer and more carefully managed by the countries that own sovereign fishing rights.
According to its web site, Tri Marine grosses $500 million a year and its Chairman, Renato Curto, holds the controlling interest. The “trimarinegroup.com” website includes this message from Chairman Curto (who will be in American Samoa next month for the dedication of the new cold storage building):
“Tuna is a limited, but renewable resource. Eventually, demand for tuna will exceed its supply. We therefore need to protect it and conserve it. I am convinced that macroeconomic principles will increase the value of tuna. With increasing value, many will try to profit from the fishery, even at the risk of depleting the resource and possibly destroying it. We need to be proactive and encourage our governments to impose fishing vessel capacity limitations and proper management and conservation.
“As the value of the resource increases, so will the benefits to coastal states having EEZs where tuna is caught. This is important, especially to those states which depend so heavily on tuna to sustain their economies.”
Curto also believes the tuna can be a better food product, commanding higher prices, and that consumers will benefit from the trend towards higher value (and better tasting) tuna.