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By Aeo'ainuu Aleki

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (March 22, 2001 - Samoa News/PINA Nius Online)---The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources is preparing to respond to what has become the most serious threat to reef fish populations in American Samoa.

The agency is proposing new regulations that would ban commercial spear fishing at night by divers using scuba gear. (Scuba is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus).

In the past 10 years, the use of scuba and spears has had a devastating effect on the local near-shore fish population. Villagers and scientists agree that the fish are disappearing, and a primary cause is over fishing made possible by scuba gear and night diving.

"Traditional fishing methods that have been practiced for hundreds of years preserve the natural balance and enable fish stocks to replenish," said Professor Charles Birkeland of the University of Hawai‘i.

Birkeland has been studying American Samoa's corals and fish populations for two decades, as well as in other South Pacific locales. He is currently in the territory to continue his studies.

He said that night diving with scuba, spears and lights is changing the equation. The modern "fishermen" can wipe out fish populations in a way that was not possible previously.

For example, in the past, fish were able to swim down to deep areas to evade fishermen, but scuba allows modern divers to follow. And the "sleep" that fish enjoy at night makes them easy targets.

"The night fishermen find the bigger fishes that were not reached before, asleep, and slaughter them, whole schools at a time. They have virtually depleted stocks and it is only a matter of time before stocks become dangerously low."

Speaking on behalf of many of his fellow scientists, Birkeland said, "We're not against scuba diving, or spear fishing as traditionally used by the Samoans. It is using scuba diving gear together with modern spears and modern lights that we're against, if I'm allowed to pass an opinion."

Birkeland has been studying the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary area for many, many years. He said the coral at Fagatele had been devastated in the 1970s by an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish, but has since recovered, which indicates a healthy marine environment. But he says, "the coral is wonderful over there, but there is hardly any fish."

His words are echoed by Dr. Alison Green from Australia, who previously worked as a biologist at Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, and is here working with Birkeland.

Prof. Birkeland said other Pacific island nations have been through what American Samoa is now experiencing, and as a result they banned the use of scuba gear for fishing. Such bans are in effect in Australia, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Fiji, he said.

People can go scuba diving, and they can go fishing, but they can't combine the two.

"The situation is clear, but America and its territories have not responded as quickly as some other Pacific nations in protecting its reef fish from depletion due to scuba divers."

Birkeland said in Palau a permit is required for fishing and the government does not generally approve permit requests from commercial fishermen who want to fish the reef. Instead, the resource is protected for subsistence fishing (fishing for one's own family and friends) or recreation.

"A sad situation arose some time back in Palau, when a Taiwanese longliner was allowed to fish in the reef area. Somehow, the Taiwanese boat fished out the area where fish spawn. Up to today, the area still hasn't recovered, and the authorities have admitted their blunder."

Locally, the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources has a consistent set of reports from scientists and local residents, which confirm the reduction in local reef fish populations and the increase in commercial scuba spear fishing.

Items from the SAMOA NEWS, American Samoa's daily newspaper, may not be republished without permission. To contact the publisher, send e-mail to

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