American Samoa Biologist Says Marine Monument Designation Not Based On Science

Marine and Wildlife Resources official shares concern with Department of Interior

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, July 18, 2017) – Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) Chief Fisheries Biologist, Domingo Ochavillo has shared concerns with US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, over the designation of Rose Atoll as a marine monument; and also argues that expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument was not based on science “but more on political legacy considerations.”

The biologist’s comment — a letter released last week by the federal portal <> — was in response to Zinke’s request for public comments on DOI’s review of all land and marine monuments in the nation including Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands following President Trump’s executive order in April.

“There is a need to review these national monument designations so that they are based on the best available science, and adequate cultural and economic considerations,”  said Ochavillo who wrote the comment-letter in her capacity as DMWR acting director at the time.

“The recent consideration of the American Samoa Deeds of Cession as a relevant document for federal decisions makes it more imperative now to review these marine monument designations,” said Ochavillo, referring to the Honolulu federal court decision this year that voids a US National Marine Fisheries Service rule which reduced last year the Large Vessel Prohibited Area in territorial waters from 50 to 12 miles.


In her letter, Ochavillo explained that the “indigenous people of the Manu'a Islands consider Rose Atoll or Muli’ava their traditional fishing ground”, and monument designation “meant that additional culturally important area was lost.”

“Scientifically, the superimposition of the national monument designation to the Rose Atoll Wildlife Refuge was redundant,” said Ochavillo because it “was already a no-fishing zone up to 12nm thereby effectively protecting the coral reefs.”

“Expansion up to 50nm has no added benefits to pelagic animals that are highly mobile that move in the South Pacific region,” she noted. “In addition, the additional national monument designation has added another bureaucratic layer in the permitting process and added confusion.”

All of Rose Atoll Marine National Monument is contained within the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.


Ochavillo further contends that the decision to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Monument “was not based on science but more on political legacy considerations,” adding that the original designation already protected coral reefs and the expansion would be ineffective for otherwise highly mobile marine animals whose movements cover the vast Pacific Ocean.

“The expansion also virtually closed the economic fate of the local canneries and the American Samoa economy already reeling from unique challenges of a Small Island Developing State,” she said.

The Pacific Remote Islands Monument was expanded by former President Obama.

The governor along with StarKist Co., and Tri Marine International have argued that this expansion has closed off traditional fishing grounds for the US purse seiner fleet which services the local canneries. (See yesterday and last Friday’s Samoa News editions for details on Lolo and StarKist's arguments.)


There have been hundreds of comments released by the federal portal which urge Zinke and the federal government not to remove the Rose Atoll designation.

One of the strongest supporters of this viewpoint is the US based National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

In a July 9th letter to Zinke and US Commerce Secretary Wibur Ross, the foundation urges the Trump Administration to uphold the designations of all marine national monuments at their current size and with the requirements put in place in the Proclamations made by previous Presidents.

For Rose Atoll, the Foundation argued among other things, that this is one of the most pristine atolls in the world. Furthermore, the lands, submerged lands, waters, and marine environment around Rose Atoll support a dynamic, interconnected reef ecosystem that is home to a very diverse assemblage of terrestrial and marine species, many of which are threatened or endangered.

Additionally, Rose Atoll supports the largest populations of giant clams, and it is a primary nesting site for threatened green and endangered hawksbill sea turtles, and central seabird colony in the region with approximately 97% of the seabird population of American Samoa, and rare species of reef fish in the territory.

The Monument area includes the submerged volcanic cone known as the Vailulu’u Seamount which has a diverse biological community that includes crinoids, octocorals, sponges, and cutthroat eels, according to the Foundation, adding that since 2003, an 1100 foot tall volcanic cone, known as Nafanua, has grown in the seamount’s crater.

“Scientists speculate that Nafanua will breach the sea surface within decades, forming a new island in the Samoan island group,” it says.

The Foundation also addressed the issue of “Cultural Resources and Traditions”, saying that the relatively pristine marine habitats at Rose Atoll also provide essential cultural resources by maintaining and supporting the traditional spiritual connection with coral reefs.

“In the Samoan creation legend, the god Tagaloa split a rock into clay, coral, cliffs, and stones. These fundamental natural formations are intact at Rose Atoll,” the Foundation said and cited its sources of information, such as the National Park of American Samoa.

“It is believed that Polynesians have harvested at Rose Atoll for millennia and several species, such as the giant clam, were used for cultural celebrations and events,” it says but made no mention of the indigenous people of the Manu’a islands.

The Foundation letter also covered the marine monuments of Papahanaumokuakea in the Hawaiian islands and Marianas Trench in the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.

The Samoa News
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