American Samoa to set up registry of purse seiners based locally

American Samoa is setting up a new registry of purse seiner vessels “based” in the territory.

This regulatory system can assist the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should Tri Marine International’s petition for fishing exemption be approved, says Port Administration director Taimalelagi Dr Claire Tuia Poumele.

The petition, submitted by Tri Marine on behalf of the American Samoa Fishery Task Force, seeks to allow the US purse seiner fleet, which offloads at least 50% of its catch at the local canneries, to fish in US exclusive economic zone and on the high seas.

In an Aug. 10 letter to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) office, Taimalelagi explained that the Board of Marine Inspector, under the purview of the Port Administration Department, is tasked to create a new registry of purse seine fishing vessels that are considered to be “based” in the territory.

Creation of this registry is authorized under local law, which authorizes the board to issue registration/licenses to tuna vessels that call regularly at American Samoa ports, she explained.

In particular, provisions of the law gives the board authority to “issue registers and certificates of inspection [hull and machinery] for the operation of vessels,” she said, adding that the board also has the authority to promulgate rules necessary to effectuate the purpose of the law.

According to the Port director, the board will promulgate new rules for issuance of resident and non-resident landing permits and will create a registry of purse seiner vessels approved to land fish in Pago Pago.

“We believe that this new regulatory system will assist your agency should the emergency rule you have under consideration come into effect,” she said. “In this regard, we would like to work with you on any issues that may arise. Our government should have a strong say in determining which vessels are in fact ‘based’ in American Samoa.”

She said ASG supports the proposed emergency rule making as outlined in the Tri Marine petition, adding that the territory’s economy is particularly dependent on both the operation of the canneries based in Pago Pago, as well as the vessel traffic that supports the canneries and allows trans-shipment to other markets.

“We believe this is the very economic activity that is to be supported by the Small Island Developing States and Territories (SIDs) provisions contained in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Convention,” she pointed out.

“We also believe that the exemption from the high seas and US EZZ restrictions—but not from any of the other conservation and management measures— allowed SIDs, should be permanent in US regulations, just as it is for our neighbours such as Kiribati,” said Taimalelagi, who is one of American Samoa’s members on the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

Dr Ruth Matagi-Tofiga, another American Samoa member on the Council, and director of the Marine and Wildlife Resources Department, also mentioned in her letter to NOAA supporting the petition, the registry for locally based fishing boats.

Matagi-Tofiga’s three-page letter dated July 20 and publicly released by NOAA on the federal portal ( was addressed to Eileen Sobeck, the assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA. The DMWR director points out that ASG is legally authorized to establish and maintain a registry of locally based fishing boats.

“This registry will be the control for any boats wishing to fish in the high seas under American Samoa's SID status. Criteria for being accepted on the local registry will be established by the Board of Marine Inspectors which will also manage the registry,” she explained.

At the outset of her letter, which seeks NOAA’s “support to pursue access of the high seas for the purse seine fleet that supplies the local tuna canneries,” Matagi-Tofiga said American Samoa is technically a SIDS despite being a US territory. She explained that the territory faces the same challenges as other SIDs countries in terms of high reliance on marine resources. And like many SIDs “we have small economies and are heavily dependent on external and remote markets, in our case our dependence on our tuna canneries.”

Recent developments have been especially challenging “for our pelagic fishing fleet” in terms of loss of fishing grounds with the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments (PRIMNM), she said.

“We have also lost traditional fishing grounds in Kiribati due to its decision to sell vessel fishing days to more lucrative offers,” she said. “We understand that access to the high seas has been controversial.”

“Several SIDs have proposed high seas closure more understandably because of their remoteness and operational cost challenges, absence of management in terms of illegal unreported and unregulated fishing, and over-exploitation,” she said.

However, she argued that the situation of the purse seiners fishing from American Samoa needs to be considered for high seas access and she outlined her reasons - such as the fact that the fleet has fished in the high seas since the beginning and its part of their historical fishing grounds.

When access to fishing in Kiribati was reduced for the entire US purse seiner fleet from 4,313 days in 2014 to only 300 days in 2015, access to the high seas became even more important for the boats that are based in American Samoa.

She explained that the US purse seiner fleet operating in the Western and Central Pacific is actually two fleets: one of about 18 boats that is based in American Samoa and another fleet of 19 boats that are not.

“These 19 boats typically transship their catch near the fishing grounds where they happen to be operating. They move around to find the best fishing grounds,” she said. “They typically don't have to wait in a queue to unload like the boats do in American Samoa and they generally catch more fish than the American Samoa based boats as they have more time on the fishing grounds.”

 Additionally, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) see the high seas as competition for their Vessel Days Scheme (VDS). “If boats can't fish in the high seas, they will have to buy VDS days from the PNA. The PNA sees the VDS as a conservation measure. Boat owners see it as a way to make money,” she added.

Furthermore, the US is losing access under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, in the high seas and in the US EEZ's. “This is going to impact the raw material supply of the canneries and employment by the tuna industry in the Territory,” she said.

Matagi-Tofiga also argued that US flag boats based in American Samoa should not be treated as a Distant Water Fishing Nation (DWFN) fleet. “They are a local fleet that is a vital part of the American Samoa tuna fishery, a fishery that supports two large canneries, a shipyard, fuel depot, ship chandleries, ship agents, stevedoring companies, and other businesses and their thousands of employees,” she said.

“According to WCPFC management measures, DWFN fleets have to limit their fishing days in the high seas. SIDS do not. SIDS are exempt,” she pointed out and noted that tuna is migratory. “If it is not caught in the high seas, it will be caught in some country's EEZ.”

According to the director, there will be a significant savings in cost of access if the American Samoa based boats can fish more in the high seas and less in the PNA countries. The cost per day of access in the PNA countries for 2016 is expected to be about $12,000. “This is a huge expense for a fleet that is losing money due to low fish prices,” she said.

Additionally, keeping access to the high seas by the highly compliant US flag purse seiners that are part of American Samoa's tuna industry will provide a significant presence in the high seas which will “act as a deterrent against Illegal Unreported Unregulated fishing.”

 “We are requesting access to high seas for our purse seiners but also support initiatives to manage the high seas. We would like to pursue more discussions of this request and associated issues with your office,” she concluded.