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Survival of StarKist cannery at the forefront of 180th Council Meeting

Western Pacific Fishery Management Council logo

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — “The long-term survivability of the cannery is a key motivation for the positions that we take” during “difficult negotiation” for fishing days at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

This is according to NOAA fisheries deputy assistant for regulatory programs, Samuel Rauch III, who served in the last two years as one of the commissioners for the US government on the WCPFC, during a news briefing with local reporters on Tuesday, following the opening of the 180th Meeting of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council at the Gov. Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center.

In his remarks at the opening of the meeting, Lt. Gov. Lemanu Palepoi Sialega Mauga pointed to the critical issue — that NOAA reconsider its decision to close off fishing by the US purse seiner fleet 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, effective Oct. 9th.

Lemanu reminded the Council that the closure “will affect our fish cannery, and have a major negative economic impact on our tuna-dependent American Samoa.”

One of the issues raised during the news conference was how “our fishing area” is affected by various regulations and policies implemented by the feds, and the fact that the cannery and the US fleet will look elsewhere for fish.

“We constantly look at the regulations. Some of the regulations that we had to adopt this year were ordered by that international body, the agreement of the WCPFC,” Rauch said, referring to what Lemanu had mentioned in his remarks.

He explained that the ELAPS is negotiated every year during the WCPF meetings — how many fishing days, and under what conditions for the US purse seiner fleet. And the outcome makes a difference on the quantity of fish for the cannery here, as well as others and the Hawaii longline fleet.

During his two years as a US commissioner on the WCPF, Rauch said he tried “very hard [to] ensure that there was enough fish and enough opportunity for the cannery here [and] the US fishing fleet.”

“It’s a difficult negotiation with all the other countries [under the WCPF involved] and we always don’t get what we want,” he explained. “But we are trying to increase the opportunities for the U.S.; and the long-term survivability of the cannery is a key motivation for the positions that we take.”

The ELAPS and other fishery issues impacting American Samoa will be taken up at the 16th Meeting of the WCPFC set for Dec. 5-11 in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

With the closure of the ELAPS for the rest of 2019, Samoa News asked if the cannery will have enough fish supply for the rest of the year.

Council chairman, Taotasi Archie Soliai, who is also a StarKist Samoa official, said, “the cannery has some supply contractors to supply fish for remainder of the year.” When asked if the contractors are foreign contractors — for example, China — Taotasi responded, “No. Regular contractors supply for us.”

He said one of the other important things that should be mentioned is access to fishing grounds for the U.S. fleet. Up until a few years ago, he said, National Marine Monuments in the Pacific have been expanded by federal regulation and it “actually shrunk traditional fishing grounds that were available to our fishermen. So it becomes an additional burden — if you’re talking about access to the [fish] stocks.”

Once those traditional fishing grounds are reduced, fishermen move further out to fish, he added.

Samoa News notes that one of those monuments is the Pacific Islands Remote Marine National Monument. Local officials and some in the US fleet had argued against the expansion, which was made without consultation of local officials, the U.S. fleet, and even Congressional approval. It was done several years ago, through a Presidential order.

In her remarks during the Council meeting opening, Congresswoman Aumua Amata also referred to the monuments, saying that “with the stroke of a pen” a large area of the Pacific Ocean was made off limits to fishing.

“Because of this, the U.S. fleet must go out further distance and pay other nations to catch the fish in their waters,” she said, adding that under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, the U.S. purse seine vessels were able to secure access to the EEZs of 16 Pacific Island nations - which are part of the treaty.

“These nations are valued trading partners,” she said. “However, competition from other purse seine fishing nations — notably China — has driven higher fees, as much as $2 million per vessel annually.”

With such high costs, she said, some U.S. vessel operators have sold their vessels to foreigners. She said she would work in Congress to move the tuna treaty forward so that U.S. fishing fleet can have some important certainty to continue to fish the waters of these 16 nations. “Further solutions are needed, including restoring access to the marine monument waters” which remains the “clear recommendation” from the US Interior Department, she noted.

Amata added that she had the opportunity last month to “restate this need” to US Vice President Mike Pence and the US President as well. “And it’s my priority to get this important decision on to the President’s agenda,” she added.