US Insular Affairs Supports Fishing Exemption For Am. Samoa

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Kia‘aina letter calls for recognition as SIDS territory

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Aug. 20, 2015) – US Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Esther Kia’aina says DOI’s Office of Insular Affairs supports Tri Marine International’s petition for the recognition of American Samoa as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS).

Additionally, OIA supports an exemption of U.S. flagged purse seine vessels which deliver at least 50% of their catch to American Samoa-based processing facilities from the closure of the purse seine fishery of the Effort Limit Area for Purse Seine, or ELAPS, for 2015, on the high seas.

"OIA asks that you support this petition based on the precedent of American Samoa being designated as a SIDS under other international conventions and U.S. policies, the U.S. government's important and unique relationship with American Samoa as a U.S. territory, and the impact of the tuna industry on American Samoa's economy," Kia’aina wrote in an Aug. 17 letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service office in Honolulu.

SIDS DESIGNATION

American Samoa being recognized as a SIDS territory is an issue in which both supporters and those who oppose the petition have voiced different interpretations — with supporters saying that American Samoa is a SIDS, while opposition disagrees.

In her letter, Kia’aina pointed out that under the Convention on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, of which the United States is a party and American Samoa is a participating territory, American Samoa is considered a SIDS.

"This recognition as a SIDS acknowledges the ecological and geographical vulnerability of the territory, its economic and social dependence on highly migratory fish stocks, and the need for specific assistance to participate effectively," she wrote.

Kia’aina noted that on July 28 this year, NOAA closed the U.S. pelagic longline fishery for bigeye tuna in the Western and central Pacific Ocean as a result of the fishery reaching the 2015 catch limit. NOAA recognized the territories as SIDS in this ruling, and it exempted American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Even more specifically, it ruled that "longline-caught bigeye tuna may be retained on board, transshipped, and landed if the fish are caught by a vessel with a valid American Samoa longline permit, or landed in the territories."

But earlier, on June 15 this year, NOAA had closed the U.S. purse seine fishery in the Effort Limit Area for Purse Seine. In contrast, this rule did not recognize American Samoa as a SIDS nor exempt it from the conditions in a similar manner that would preserve equity and minimize economic impact, Kia’aina pointed out.

"While OIA recognizes that the U.S. pelagic longline fishery and the U.S. purse seine fishery are two different entities, we believe there should be a consistent recognition of the disadvantaged position of SIDS and that should be applied across both scenarios," she said.

"If American Samoa is not extended SIDS designation and an exemption, it will have to bear a severe and destabilizing hardship on its fragile economy," she said.

OIA FUNDING

She explained that OIA’s mission is to promote government efficiency, foster economic opportunities, and improve quality of life for the people of the insular areas.

For FY 2014, the federal government provided $187 million to the American Samoa government, over 50% of its territorial budget.

In the last ten years, OIA alone has provided $343 million to the American Samoan government, $22.75 million on an annual basis for its operations. Any impact on American Samoa's economy has an impact on U.S. interests, she said.

"As a consequence, OIA carefully weighs all federal policies that may impact American Samoa and why we are very concerned about the impact of the closure of the purse seine fishery of the... ELAPS, for 2015, on the high seas," she said.

TUNA INDUSTRY

Like others who have commented on the petition, Kia’aina pointed out that the tuna industry has been a driving force in American Samoa's economy since 1954 and the viability of the territory's economic prospects heavily depend on the industry's viability, as the tuna industry is the second largest employer behind the territorial government.

She noted that the US Tuna Treaty with the Parties of the Nauru Agreement (PNA) had reduced the entire U.S. purse seine fleet fishing access in Kiribati waters down to only 300 days in 2015.

Moreover, she said, the transition to extend the federal minimum wage to the territory further challenges American Samoa's ability to retain the tuna industry and attract other potential businesses, and failure to provide an exemption per Tri Marine's petition may lead to the closure of cannery operations in American Samoa.

She said this would be a devastating situation to Americans in this part of the world where approximately 85% of their economy depends on the tuna industry.

"I strongly urge your favorable consideration of Tri Marine’s petition to allow access for American Samoa-based purse seine fishing vessels," she said.

OTHER COMMENTS

Kia’aina joins Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga, Congresswoman Aumua Amata, ASG directors and employees, several businesses that operate in American Samoa, owners and operators of fishing fleets, the Tautai o Samoa Longline and Fishing Association and many individuals — including canneries workers — who have sent letters of support on the petition, which was the product of the American Samoa Fishery Task Force, but submitted by Tri Marine.

Both Lolo and Aumua argued that American Samoa is a SIDS and should be granted this designation in accordance with Tri Marine’s petition.

In his letter, Lolo said the tuna supply for the local industry is currently "in serious jeopardy because of both international and federal prohibitions". And due to new fishing restrictions in the region, the governor said that one purse seiner has already gone bankrupt; while two others have left the territory and are now based in Ecuador.

He warned NOAA of more boats leaving the territory due to these fishing restrictions.

Lolo pointed out that under the Deeds of Cession with American Samoa, the "United States promised to protect our resources for the benefit of our people. Besides our resilient people, tuna is our most important economic resource and our access to this resource must be protected."

The governor stated, "This is an emergency and it requires emergency rule making."

The comment period for the petition closed Aug. 17 and all comments are now available to the public on www.regulations.gov

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