StarKist Samoa Wants Government Help To Expand Freezer

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Am. Samoa looks for public land to support cannery’s growth

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, April 5, 2016) – The Lolo Administration is working to identify land space, which will allow StarKist Samoa to expand its operations. In particular, they are looking for space to increase their freezer capacity, so that the largest private employer in American Samoa is not faced with a shortage of fish supply, resulting in the need to stagger work hours — which is what happened last month.

Space for StarKist Samoa operations was one of the main issues that StarKist Inc., chief executive officer and president Andrew Choe discussed in a meeting last Wednesday with Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga and his senior staff. Also present at the meeting was Congresswoman Aumua Amata.

As previously reported by Samoa News, the canneries — StarKist Inc. and Tri Marine International’s Samoa Tuna Processors Inc. — had provided a list of potential incentives to the government after the canneries were requested to do so by the Governor’s Fishery Task Force.

Speaking at a news conference last Friday at the StarKist Samoa office, Choe first noted the support from the government under Lolo’s leadership, adding that during the meeting with the governor, he "really didn’t have to make any requests [as] he (Lolo) knew our issues already — and not just the governor but all his staff members."

Choe said the meeting went really well and that he received a "commitment from the governor and his staff that they’re willing to work with us" to make StarKist successful, as well as American Samoa. Regarding the incentives sought by StarKist, Choe says nothing is final yet, but the governor is "committed to supporting us."

StarKist Inc. senior manager of corporate affairs, Michelle Faist, emphasized that the incentives requested by the canneries were not demands, but they were suggestions requested by the governor through his fishery task force, which wanted a document outlining priorities and needs of the industry.

"I think sometimes, it was communicated that those were our demands, but that truly was not the case. It was really like a working document to help us," she told reporters. "We really appreciated it — that focus and the strategy behind it — asking us questions. I think that will ultimately make it a stronger plan as we move forward."

A few weeks ago, StarKist Samoa implemented staggered work hours for one week due to the shortage of fish supply, as the US purse seiner fleet has been faced with their own challenges since last year due to restrictions on fishing grounds in the US EEZ and on the high seas.

Additionally, the impasse since the beginning of the year on the South Pacific Tuna Treaty prevented the US fleet from fishing in waters of 17 Pacific Island countries that are party to the Treaty, and an interim agreement reached last month is good only for 2016.

Asked what actions StarKist has taken to prevent another problem due to another shortage of fish supply, Choe first pointed out that there are two main advantages for operating in American Samoa. "One, obviously is the island and the people. We’ve always enjoyed support from the people [and] our loyal employees," he said. "That’s the number one reason why we’re here."

"The second reason is fish supply. We are near the fishing grounds [and] we always enjoyed a stable supply of fish," he said adding that "there are a lot of challenges and issues that we face, that’s why we have to restrict processing sometimes and shut down some days as well. "

Choe then offered his apologies "to the people affected" adding, "I know people’s livelihoods were impacted."

"I think, the issue comes down to the fact that we don’t have enough space — enough freezer space," he said. "We have about ten days freezer space, and ten-day production periods, which is probably the lowest of any cannery in the world," he explained. "We are the biggest cannery in the world with the smallest freezer capacity in terms of production volume."

He said the cannery had been getting a stable supply of boats coming in, but with the Tuna Treaty and restrictions on fishing grounds, that had an impact on the supply of incoming fishing boats.

"The fish supply has been very volatile", he said, adding that with the company’s limited freezer space, it has made things "very challenging." He said the space issue has been discussed with the government and "that’s probably the number one need we have at this point— the space issue."

Asked as to what solutions the government offered, Choe said he believes the "most feasible solution is the space right next to our cannery" — the space close to the ASG owned shipyard facility, which is part of the net yard. He said he visited this space with shipyard services chief executive officer Moefa’auo William Emmsley after the meeting with the governor.

He noted that discussions for this space are still ongoing and nothing is firm yet. "I’ve talked to many people in government and they were supportive," he said adding that that he’s hopeful that something will materialize regarding the issue of space.

StarKist Samoa senior official Taotasi Archie Soliai added that the governor has asked Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga — who was also in attendance during last week Wednesday’s meeting — to help StarKist identify possible land areas that would be mutually agreed upon, beneficial and within close proximity to StarKist.

Choe pointed out that he also met with the Commerce director and other staff members, "who were already aware of the needs that we have." He noted that the governor’s office and his staff were very quick in responding to the company’s needs.

Asked if the current supply in the company’s freezer will last ten days, Choe responded that "right now our freezer is pretty full" but added that ten days is not nearly enough, and that the cannery needs to have a stable fish supply.

"It’s kind of critical that we have more space," he said, adding that with the limited freezer space there is only so much the company can purchase from the fishing boats, who end up shipping fish out of the territory.

Previously, during the Togiola administration, StarKist had sought additional land to expand their operations with additional freeze storage space, but nothing came of it.

Choe acknowledged that these are issues the company has been facing for a long time, "but now, because of external issues, it is more critical. Before, the boats were delivering fish on a regular basis, but now boats are not coming in on a regular basis. So now, the issue of space is getting more and more critical."

TUNA POUCH

Asked about StarKist’s tuna pouch products, Choe says the company is producing the tuna pouch, and these products have been sold locally. Choe pointed out that "pouches in the US have been selling very well, and we’re number one."

He revealed that because of the sales, "pouch sales are growing, while can consumption has been declining. There are benefits to the pouch, because it’s very portable."

Additionally, StarKist has begun selling its tuna pouch at GNC — a chain of health food stores in the US, which "shows tuna is recognized as a health food option..."

Choe acknowledged that the company does not do very much pouch production here "and the reason goes back to space. We cannot increase pouch production here because we don’t have enough space."

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