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It's politics ... not conservation, Lolo says about fishing restrictions in ELAPS

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Restrictions placed on US purse seiner fleets fishing on high seas and the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ)  “is not a conservation issue” but “international politics,” declared Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga in an Oct 7th letter to Michael Tosatto, regional administrator for the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Pacific Islands Regional Office based in Honolulu.

The governor’s letter was in response to the NMFS announcement last month about the closure — effective Oct. 9th — for the US purse seiner fleet to fish in the US-EEZ and on the high seas — referred to as Effort Limit Area for Purse Seine (ELAPS) for the rest of calendar year 2019.

“This closure is regrettable, as it will surely have a negative economic impact on the tuna dependent economy of American Samoa,” Lolo wrote to Tosatto, adding that the closure “will hurt” the US purse seiner fleet based in American Samoa “along with our tuna processors who depend on the catch from those boats.”

The governor said “there is a significant error” in the NOAA interim rule for closing for the rest of 2019 of the ELAPS, saying it “wrongly assumes that there is no adverse impact from the ELAPS closure.”

“NMFS must take into account the severely negative impact of the ELAPS closure on American Samoa,” he noted.

Lolo referred to a NMFS Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) conducted on the economic impact of the ELAPS closure in 2015, in which the PEA concluded that because the fleet expends the majority of its fishing effort in areas outside of the ELAPS, “there may be no overall change in the amount of fishing effort of the fleet in 2015- 2020.”

“This is no longer true,” Lolo said, pointing out that, for economic reasons, the American Samoa-based US flagged purse seiner fleet “prefers to fish in the high seas areas not too distant from American Samoa instead of the EEZ’s” of the Pacific countries under the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

“Fishing in the high seas is free; not so in the EEZs of the PNA countries. There is no issue with conservation. The boats will fish whether in the high seas or someone’s EEZ,” the governor wrote. He reminded Tosatto and others reading his letter that US waters and the high seas areas that are close to American Samoa are one of the largest and have been very productive for the US fleet over the last few years.

Unlike areas to the west that are surrounded by many EEZs of the Pacific Islands, Lolo said the high seas and US waters surrounding American Samoa “make up the most significant body of viable fishing grounds.”

“The proximity to American Samoa allows the fleet to remain within viable range to return to American Samoa and support the canneries as well as the large economy of the territory,” he explained. With the closure of the high seas, “it is probable that the vessels will need to move further to the east or west and will begin to operate outside of the range to economically return to deliver their catch to American Samoa,” Lolo added.

He called on US representatives on the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) - which sets fishing regulations in this region - to address American Samoa’s concerns during the next WCPFC meeting, regarding its dependency on access to fishing on high seas. “Again, this is not a conservation issue. It’s about international politics and competition. The people of American Samoa request your prompt attention to this urgent matter,” Lolo told Tosatto.

He said it “makes very little economic sense that our remaining cannery (referring to StarKist Samoa) has to buy fish from China because the US flagged fishing vessels are banned from fishing the high seas and fishing grounds closer to American Samoa.”

He concluded, “China’s dominance over the fishing industry is becoming pervasive throughout the Pacific and American Samoa is feeling the worst negative impact of NOAA’s and NMFS’s policy decision.”

Copies of the governor’s letter were sent to the US Interior Department, Congresswoman Aumua Amata, and Lt. Gov. Lemanu Palepoi Sialega Mauga.