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DOC director says NMFS meeting in AS for public input “very deceptive”

Just to “meet federal policy” not actually garner public input

Commerce Department director Keniseli Lafaele has described a move by the US National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) to hold just one public meeting in American Samoa to “meet federal policy” in gathering public input on a new federal proposed rule, as “very deceptive”.

Additionally, this proposed rule, dealing with aquaculture and other federal fisheries rules is another attempt by NMFS “to cripple us economically.”

In August this year, NMFS — in coordination with the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council — issued a notice announcing its intent to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) to analyze the potential environmental impact of a proposed Pacific Islands Region (PIR) aquaculture management program and alternatives.

The notice begins the official public scoping process to help identify alternatives and determine the scope of environmental issues for consideration in the PEIS, which is intended to support offshore aquaculture development, including appropriate management unit species (MUS) for aquaculture, reasonably foreseeable types of offshore aquaculture operations, and permitting and reporting requirements for persons conducting aquaculture activities in Federal waters.

Public comments on the PEIS ended at the close of business yesterday and the local public meeting for the proposal was held on Sept. 8. 

Among the comments submitted to NMFS was an Oct. 27 letter from Lafaele, who said his staff attended the local public hearing and that it’s his understanding that this issue was based on a recommendation from the Council to amend American Samoa’s current fishery ecosystem plan (ASFED) to include, for the first time ever, an aquaculture management program around American Samoa waters from 3 to 200 nautical miles.

According to the DOC director, the opportunity to provide comments to a federal proposed program and or action by NMFS infers that following the only Sept. 8 meeting in American Samoa, answers to the host of questions would be immediately published.

Thereafter, the opportunity to coordinate and collaborate on how this proposed action would affect territorial waters, culture, access to traditional waters and overall impact to American Samoa would serve to result in more informed and inclusive process to meaningfully include residents of American Samoa.

Lafaele points out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, under which NMFS comes, has the tendency to host meetings in the territory to obtain resident names and dates to comply with ‘public notice’ requirements “without ever really answering all the questions and providing advance knowledge, purpose and inclusiveness to any program process, let alone implement this broad regulatory action before providing answers” during the pre-scoping period — which again — only serves to comply with federal requirements of public comments to federal action “is reckless”.

“It is also deceptive to this national registry process to adhere to ‘public comments’ and ‘public notice’ requirements when the only meeting in American Samoa to discuss the federal aquaculture management program... was only attended by 4 people,” Lafaele wrote.

“Less than 5 people [attending the meeting] is not even 5%... our population,” he said and outlined questions asked by American Samoa participants, which have not been answered to date. Among the questions:

•     Were any efforts made by NMFS to have other public comment meetings in the outer islands in Aunu’u, Ta’u, Olosega, Ofu or Swains? Where was the notice of the public meeting published and when was it published before the Sept. 8th meeting in Pago Pago?

•     What was the response from your supervisors to discuss NOAA federal agency interface with other MMFS subdivisions, the Council, National Marine Sanctuaries and other agencies to begin working with the territory’s governor and the Office of Samoan Affairs to identify and adopt improved public notice methods and more inclusive methodologies that will result in a better public input process to this kind of federal activity, which is now perceived to be conducted on purpose by NOAA.

•     A member of the American Samoa participants in the Sept. 8th meeting asked what data would be used to justify the regulation of aquaculture in American Samoa because what was being conducted was a PEIS seemingly redundant to the existing reports; unless NMFS is purposely seeking a certain scope of this particular PEIS.

In addition, there was never a time where NMFS provided the data and full reports that led to the decision of the Council and NMFS to amend the ASFEP. Without such information, Lafaele says American Samoa cannot provide meaningful comments at the Sept. 8th meeting on why aquaculture program in American Samoa waters is needed or even desired by the federal agencies and more importantly to the territory.

“This is an overt trend by the federal agencies to treat the U.S. territories as an afterthought to the notion of ‘conservation’ and policy setting of our waters, resources, the ability of American Samoa residents and government to be thoroughly informed and included in this proposed aquaculture program,” he wrote.

Additionally, NMFS makes distinctions that the waters for this program is directly “federal waters” which does not seriously consider the direct impact this uncoordinated ASFEP will have to “our territorial waters”.

Lafaele explained that DOC has struggled to keep the fisheries industry alive due to NMFS polices of late and this is another attempt by NMFS in coordination with the Council “to push for ‘management’ of aquaculture and waters around American Samoa without including American Samoa in these efforts.”

“I take these actions as another attempt by NMFS to cripple us economically,” he said adding that the policies of the NMFS, the Council and the USDOC “are woefully unaligned.”

Lafaele voiced DOC’s objections to the proposed aquaculture program and urged that the present action and all further actions to amend the territory’s ASFEP be suspended until two major questions are addressed:

•     The issue of whether the current means of notifying the American Samoa public and allowing them opportunity to meaningfully comment on the aquaculture options gives genuine and legally adequate due process is discussed and resolved between ASG and NOAA. It’s suggested the US Interior Department, “as our federal agency administrator and our traditional leaders be notified and included on any such discussions; and

•     The question raised or referred in this letter have been responded to and any requested information not now in our possession or control has been received.

The letter included a petition with 58 signatures of local residents and DOC staff opposing the proposed rule making as well as calling for the suspension of the process until questions raised by Lafaele in his letter are adequately addressed.