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Senators hear explanation from Treasurer on excise tax for longliner fish

Following a directive by the governor, ASG Treasurer Dr. Falema’o ‘Phil’ M. Pili says that he, along with the Attorney General’s office, is reviewing the 5% excise tax pertaining to fish caught by the local longline fishing fleet in the territory’s Exclusive Economic Zone.


Pili’s comments were made last Tuesday before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing which included testimony from the Treasurer on the issue of overtime for Customs Officers.


Instead of holding a separate hearing for Pili to testify on the 5% excise tax on fish caught by locally based longliners, committee chairman Sen. Laolagi F.S. Vaeao opted to include this issue in the Customs Office overtime hearing so that the Treasurer does not have to be called back to the Senate.


Last week, Sen. Mauga T. Asuega raised the excise tax issue, saying that the Senate needed to summon the Treasurer to explain why he won’t comply with local laws waiving the excise tax for fish caught in American Samoa’s EEZ.


This issue surfaced last December when it was raised by the Tautai o Samoa Longline and Fishing Association, saying that the Attorney General had issued an opinion waiving the tax, but the Treasurer had not complied.


During the Senate committee hearing Pili recalled that there was already a legal opinion issued by the AG’s Office, which stated that fish caught in the territory’s EEZ, is exempted from paying excise tax.


However, he says the “problem” that he sees faced by the government is that it’s difficult for Customs officers to identify or determine that the fish were, in fact, caught within the local EEZ—a very large body of water.


He shared that—at this point—the longliners are exempted from paying the excise tax as long as their fish is provided to the canneries. (Former Gov. Togiola Tulafono also stated this same point in a letter to the Treasurer earlier this month.)


“But when it comes to ‘miscellaneous fish, our interpretation [of the law] is that it should not be exempted,” said Pili, who referred to “miscellaneous fish” as those sold to stores and other local businesses.


He claims that there are a lot of miscellaneous fish — catch not sold to the canneries— that could be transshipped onto a “mother ship”, and American Samoa has no control from there, as the catch is taken to a location outside the territory.


(The AG’s Office legal opinion states that 10% of the total catch - or miscellaneous fish - caught by longliners but not sold to the canneries is still considered local product, which is exempted from the tax. This was also Togiola’s argument)


Pili informed senators that the governor has requested that his office as well as the AG’s Office revisit this issue and review the category “miscellaneous fish,” which is one of the issues of concern by longliners, as “times are not good for them right now, and the governor is quite receptive to that.”


He reiterated that the governor wants to help the longline fleet owners, but “on the flip side,” as ASG Treasurer,  “I also have to look at the ASG revenues” collected to fund local operations.


He also told the committee that the meeting between the governor and local boat owners provided new information wherein the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources as well as  NOAA “have records” of where longliners fish and these records can be used “to make our determination” as to whether the fish was caught within the EEZ. 


He says these records can also help Customs make the necessary determination as to where the fish have been caught.


“So there are a lot of things that we are working on right now. Rather than a sudden change to what we are doing right now, we need to do it in a way that is a long lasting solution to help us and the longliners themselves,” he said.


Pili was among a handful of cabinet directors who attended the meeting around 8a.m. Tuesday between longline boat owners and the governor to discuss concerns of the longline fleet.


With the testimony by the Treasurer very clear, senators didn’t have any specific questions, but urged the government to do the right thing and follow the law, and exempt fish caught by longliners within our EEZ.


Sen. Mauga T. Asuega told Pili that these longliners are locally based and licensed to be based in American Samoa and therefore are considered “local operations and businesses” and every effort should be made to help them.


“These are our own people,” Mauga emphasized several times, saying these longliners depend on fishing for their livelihood. “Try to resolve this issue and waive the 5% tax for longliners.”


Sen. Afoa L.S. Lutu said he already rendered his legal opinion on this issue during his tenure as attorney general and one of the goals was to protect local businesses. Additionally, the exemption law is very clear and is meant to help these vessels, as these are not easy businesses to operate.


He also said these vessels have satellites, which track their movements, and if there is information by the vessel provided to the government as to where the fish have been caught, such information can be confirmed by the satellite records.


“Follow the law,” was the urging from Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fauimaono, who added that senators were prepared to drill the witness with questions as to why the Treasurer is not following the law. “But I am thankful now that the Treasurer has testified that he is taking another serious look in this matter.”


“If you follow the law, there is no problem,” he added.