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Op-Ed: Deadline for public comment on Fagatele Bay proposed expansion plan this Friday

Things have gotten quiet as expected over the Christmas time, however, we now have a few days left before the deadline for public comment on the proposal for Fagatele Bay. The deadline is January 6 — that’s this Friday. 

Congressman Faleomavaega Eni is holding a hearing on the issue, but it’s scheduled for January 11th — this is too late because of the public comment deadline. Unless, he is able to still submit a comment from this hearing, like he did for the US Coast Guard change of rules to the exception to the manning of  fishing vessels home ported in American Samoa — that was done after the public comment deadline.

We have seen articles and the full page advertisement in the Samoa News from the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary staff about the benefits of the plan; and also Gov. Togiola Tulafono has urged the public to understand and read the management plan before making ‘our’ decisions on one of his Saturday radio programs.

However, I would like to bring to the attention of the people a few facts and points the Governor is missing out on addressing:

Public Meetings

The Sanctuary staff have not been making it easy for us to understand what is being proposed.

Public meetings were complicated, with no question and answer sessions, the 400 page document is daunting to look at, and most people don’t have access to the internet to input and read comments on the website.

The meeting times were badly organized and timed around the Palolo harvest, only 2 were held in Tutuila (with no central meeting close to Utulei for fishermen and the general public) and the Ta’u meeting was only held in Fitiuta (and not in Faleasau and Ta’u, which are closer to the Big Coral site).

Only about 5 people attended the meeting in Ofu and about same in Fitiuta, with only about 20 people attending the Auasi meeting (given it was early in the morning after the Palolo fishing).

This seems to mirror the public meetings held in 2009 which were also low attended, and most of the comments were disregarded (the raw comments can be viewed online

Is that what is going to happen this time too? How are our comments going to be taken into account? We are told that the response to our comments will be posted after the 6th of January, and then what? Will we get another chance to input into the plan? I think not!

The fa’a Samoa

The fa’a Samoa has not been followed even though it is a key principle in the proposed plan.

Why were the affected village communities so surprised by the proposed plan?

The Vaitogi community was shocked at the palagi name given to their bay, Fogama’a;  at the Auasi meeting, the Aunu’u village Council chiefs opposed the 2 proposed sites surrounding their small island; and at the ASCC meeting we are told that 75% of Futiga residents are against the Fagatele site and that the original agreement was done with just one family member after money was offered.

Again history is repeating and it seems just one or two people in each community was approached, and who knows what was offered to them, we can only imagine.

Without support from the community, they will have a hard job enforcing the rules. The best way is to get the community to agree on the plans and rules and then they will enforce it themselves — like the traditional way.

We do this already with the Marine and Wildlife program, communities work with them to help manage the coral and the fish for the future, and it works.

Why is this needed?

Our island population is so small compared to the other Sanctuary sites in the US, and those places don’t rely on their marine resources as much as we do here.

There is no allowance for subsistence and traditional fishing methods mentioned in the proposal. We are told that it is to benefit the fish and the coral populations, but a lot of these sites are already in good condition, mainly because the local communities care and look after their own resources.

In Ta’u the Tai Samasama and the big corals are sacred so it is already protected; in Aunu’u and ‘Larson’s’ the communities take great care of their resources because they rely on them to feed their families and for fa’alavelave.

The large area east of Aunu’u that is being proposed to not allow any fishing includes the East bank and the drop off area which is one of the best places to go trolling and bottom fishing. What are people from Aunu’u going to do when the weather is bad and they are stuck on the island? They will need to fish in that area to get their food. Are they going to be fined if they do this?

It is absurd that these plans haven’t been talked about more with the communities and the fishermen themselves.

An Environmental Impact Statement should include a socio-economic study to understand the economic and social impact to the population of American Samoa. Nothing was done so we don’t know what the impact will be.

This is a key requirement when designating marine protected areas, has the Sanctuary broken this requirement?

The Federal fines associated with violating the regulations at the proposed Sanctuary sites will be up to $130,000 a day. Although the Sanctuary staff say that these amounts will not be used, there will still be high fines and ‘serious’ violations will most probably be tried in the federal courts.

(Editor’s Note: Lima Tapua’i’s commentary on the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary expansion plan is of importance when considering the deadline is looming — it’s this Friday — and it’s been rumored that local fishermen are organizing a meeting on Wednesday January 4 to discuss the issue. Samoa News has chosen to publish the commentary in two parts because of its length. ra)