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Director of Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources

 I’m taking this opportunity to reply to the Op-Ed written by William Aila, Jr. and Rick Gaffney and published by Samoa News on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.  Aila and Gaffney represent the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition (PRI), proponents of the proposed Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary. 

The Hawaiian environmental advocates have erroneously stated that expanding the existing PRI monument boundaries throughout the EEZ and excluding commercial tuna fishing by the American Samoa based U.S. flag purse seiners will not negatively impact the economic viability of StarKist’s large-scale tuna cannery in American Samoa. They claim that opposition to past environmentally-based fishing area closures would lead to cannery closures, and nothing happened. They are dangerously wrong! 

American Samoa previously had two active canneries. One of those, Samoa Tuna Processors, closed at the end of 2016, not long after the loss of much of the traditional fishing grounds of the American Samoa based U.S. flag tuna purse seiners. 

Three things happened that reduced those traditional fishing grounds: Kiribati[1] reduced the number of fishing days available to US purse seiners to 300 days, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument which closed the U.S. EEZ around Jarvis Island, a rich traditional fishing ground for the U.S. fleet; and, the U.S. Government voluntarily gave up 760 high seas fishing days in the Western and Central Pacific[2].   

This perfect storm on unrelated events took away almost half of the American Samoa U.S. flag purse seiner fishing grounds. As a consequence, two things happened. The U.S. purse seiner fleet based in American Samoa was reduced from 40 to 12 boats and Samoa Tuna Processors closed its doors. 

Now history is on the verge of repeating itself. While Mr. Aila and Mr. Gaffney choose to view each action in isolation because it aligns with their anti-fishing agenda, the truth is that the effect of any single action is compounded by related issues, of which our Hawaiian brothers appear to be unaware. 

There’s another fact being ignored by Mr. Aila and Mr. Gaffney. The U.S. government is proposing to again reduce the number of available fishing days on the high seas[3]; this time by 558 days. The new rule will require that those days be fished only in the U.S. EEZ.  Simultaneously, the PRI is urging the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to take away our fishing rights and close those same areas to all fishing by U.S. vessels.

This combination of actions, on top of the other pressures facing the industry, would be devastating by any measure. So once again, Mr. Aila and Mr. Gaffney are wrong, or at least misinformed. 

Mr. Aila and Mr. Gaffney say that the truth about the cannery is a complicated economic story. It is not. 

Any tuna cannery needs three key elements to be successful: a sustainable and cost-effective fish supply, a competitive cost of conversion (i.e., the cost of putting the tuna in the can), and a consistent fair priced market. 

StarKist has one of the largest tuna canneries in the world in Atu’u.  But it’s on an island and therefore the cost of energy is much more expensive than for tuna canneries located in large, industrialized countries like Thailand and Vietnam.  This increasingly high cost of conversion, including labor, is one reason sighted by Chicken of the Sea (COS) Samoa Packing when they closed their doors in the Territory in 2009.  (That cannery was eventually rebuilt by Samoa Tuna Processors.) 

Fish supply to American Samoa is at the center of this Pacific Remote Island issue. With more and more U.S. fishing areas closed to them under the guise of conservation, the Pago Pago based purse seine fleet will have to find other areas to fish which are farther away from American Samoa. That means less fish will be landed in American Samoa and the fish supply to the cannery will suffer. This is not complicated.

The PRI Coalition says that they want to protect the cultural, natural, and historical legacy of these special islands, atolls, and reefs. Protect from what? 

The existing commercial fisheries in the proposed sanctuary areas occur offshore in the open ocean, nowhere near reefs and existing law prohibits fishing within 50 miles of shore.  There is no interaction with or impact on the resources in the nearshore environment, coral reefs, oceanic seamounts, or other ecosystems and habitats needing protection. 

The fisheries are highly regulated and monitored to ensure strict adherence to requirements and procedures to minimize interactions with marine mammals, sharks, rays, sea turtles, sea birds, and other marine fauna. 

The blatant fact that the PRI Coalition has done very little to consult or even engage with American Samoa and other U.S. Territories illustrates how little they understand about Pacific island culture and reflects on a larger issue of how the US government engages with the underserved Pacific island communities. 

Being islanders and practitioners from Hawaii, it is very disappointing that they failed to engage the wider Pacific in this initiative in the early stages. Surely, they must understand all the difficulties of being a small island in the Pacific with all the distinct associated issues and the importance of consultation.

Clearly, there is no need to close off additional areas in the Pacific Remote Islands Monument from the highly regulated fishing effort of these U.S. flag boats that deliver their catch to American Samoa.

In multiple studies, well respected marine biologists[4] have recently concluded that large, open-ocean marine protected areas provide little conservation benefit for tunas and other highly migratory species. In other words, closing these areas to fishing would come at too high a cost, with no positive return. 

Sadly, that high cost would be at the expense of American Samoa and any future commercial fishing activities in the Pacific Remote Island Areas Monument by the US fishing fleet.


[1] 40 US tuna purse seiners purchased 8,300 days from PNA+ Tokelau for US$90 million for calendar year 2015.  Only 300 of these days could be fished in Kiribati EEZ.

[2] Federal Register /Vol. 79, No. 219 /Thursday, November 13, 2014 /Rules and Regulations

[3] National Marine Fisheries Service’s Proposed Rule and Request for Comments for “International Fisheries; Western and Central Pacific Fisheries for Highly Migratory Species; Fishing Restrictions in Purse Seine Fisheries and 2022 Longline Bigeye Catch Limit”; 87 FR 55768 (NOAA-NMFS-2022-0082; September 12, 2022)

[4]John Hampton, Patrick Lehodey, Inna Senina, Simon Nicol, Joe Scutt Phillips, and Kaon Tiamere Frontiers in Marine Science, 10 January 2023, Sec. Marine Fisheries, Aquaculture and Living Resources, Volume 9 - 2022 |