UPDATE: BUMBLE BEE COURTS LOCAL LONGLINER FLEET — KEEP OPTIONS OPEN
Thailand-based Thai Union’s acquisition of Bumble Bee Seafood “will probably put the Samoa project on hold” while Bumble Bee cannery continues discussions with the Samoa government, according to Kevin McClain, Bumble Bee’s vice president of Resourcing. The comment was made during a meeting-luncheon last Friday with several local longline fleet owners and representatives.
McClain, along with Bumble Bee vice president of Loin Operations, Brett Butler, made a “courtesy visit” to the local longliner fleet owners, officials and others last week, during the meeting at Don’t Drink the Water restaurant.
Butler, an American Samoa native and former StarKist Samoa general manager told the audience of about a dozen people that he and McClain had just spent two days last week in Samoa meeting with government officials there and they wanted to meet with the longliners here about “possible business we may have” in Apia for the local fleet.
Butler even congratulated the longliners on the recent decision by the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council to allow longliners to fish seaward of 12 nautical miles in the Large Vessel Protect Areas (LVPA) in waters around the territory.
In his remarks McClain noted that Thai Union has purchased Bumble Bee and “we are in the process of getting [U.S] Department of Justice approval... that will take us probably til the end of the year.”
“So that will probably put the project that we’re looking at in Apia on hold until that time because we can’t talk [at this point] to Thai Union about our plans,” he told the audience. “So of course towards the end of the year, we’ll be able to sit down with them [Thai Union] and walk them through the project we’re working on... in Apia.”
(USDOJ’s antitrust division is reviewing the acquisition and no time frame has been given on when such a review will be completed.)
With the Apia project in mind, “we wanted to come there to talk to you about what opportunities might be in the future... and we’re going to have a really nice project [in Apia],” he said. “It makes sense... for some or most of you to deliver over there.”
McClain said there might be some pressure for boat owners to sign long term deals, either for personal or business reasons, but he asked that boat owners keep their options open for the future as Bumble Bee works to set up their Apia operations.
He also said that Bumble Bee is available for one-on-one discussions regarding future options with boat owners.
McClain noted that the longline fleet has been “struggling” along with all the other fishing fleets out in the Pacific, and fish prices have been low. For the project in Apia, he said the company wants to know the types of things the boat owners/operators would need to help them out, such as delivery to Samoa duty free, supplies (such as bait) fishing rights, and other needs.
“Let us know, so that when we work forward on this project, we know what would be attractive to you,” he told the audience. “We’re talking to the government there on fishing licenses, and that would be something [for you.]”
According to the official, Bumble Bee is the world’s largest buyer of albacore, and the project in Apia will focus on albacore, with loin operations. Additionally, Bumble Bee already has a presence in the Pacific with an operation in Fiji.
(While the meeting was closed to the media, tape recorders from Samoa News and KHJ News were on the meeting table next to longliner business owner Carlos Sanchez, who sat near to McClain.)
After the meeting with the boat owners, Butler explained the reason for excluding the media. He said it was to allow the boat owners to voice any issue they wanted, and to be able to “speak freely”. He said some of them may not want to do so in the presence of reporters.
Both Butler and McClain said it was a good meeting in which they were able to hear directly from the boat owners and operators. “We’re looking at opportunities... to work with these fishermen” in American Samoa, they said.
McClain also said that when the Apia operation is up and running, there will be opportunities for the American Samoa longline fleet “but it will be their decision to be a supplier for Bumble Bee.”
Butler stressed that Bumble Bee will be giving local longliners “more opportunities” when the project is up and running in Samoa.
“We are not forcing them into a decision... but we’re giving them another door that can make their fishing operation more efficient,” he added. “We don’t want to put them in any compromising situation, but we are just here to inform them, more or less, on what opportunities we offer and [find out] what they need from us so we can all work together.”
Asked as to what timeline the company is looking at to start their Samoa operations, Butler said plans will probably not be finalized until later this year. “We don’t know anything concrete at this point. Everything is in discussion with the Samoa government and we want to thank them for opening that door and creating a task force on how we can turn this into reality,” he said.
Asked about the outcome of their meeting with the Samoa government last week Thursday, McClain responded, “it was positive, and part of our ongoing discussion on the project.”
Butler added, “very optimistic — we are creating steps to get into that position. I think they’ve been very receptive to that, which is a good sign and we look forward to turning this into a reality. We’ve got to make sure it's the right decision for both parties.”
Butler also made his first public comments since taking up the new post at Bumble Bee. Asked about his new job, Butler said, “I’m thankful for the opportunity... given by Bumble Bee and I very much enjoy it. I am really happy.”
He said it was a big decision to make, moving his whole family to California, but said he "thinks this is a good change” for him and his family at this time in life.
Asked for comments about the meeting with Bumble Bee, Tautai-O-Samoa Longline & Fishing Association president Christinna Lutu-Sanchez responded, “for a change, it’s great to be loved and be wanted. It’s great to hear that Bumble Bee wants us and to keep our options open. Their plans are to hopefully establish a plant in Samoa, and that will be an additional market for us.”
StarKist and Tri Marine International have been great and “very supportive of us and I have to thank them again on this LVPA measure.” she said, adding that “Bumble Bee is going to be another player in the market. We know we can deliver our fish there, if we want.”
While no firm commitment was made on the issue of incentives for boat owners, Lutu-Sanchez said that she does know that the Samoa government has been “extremely supportive and very aggressive” in bringing Bumble Bee to Samoa.
Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi “has been at the forefront working to make this happen,” Lutu-Sanchez said, “And he is going full force to attract Bumble Bee… he understands the importance of the boat owners, because without fish there’s no plant. He’s going full force on making sure that every single issue and concern is addressed, whether it be access to waters, or incentives such as taxes.