The most heated discussions during the three-day meeting of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council last month concerned the reach of the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.
For years, council executive director Kitty Simonds has made no secret of her views that national marine sanctuaries or monuments encroach on the council’s authority to manage fishing in federal waters. Her first chance to expound on the subject at the Pago Pago meeting came following comments made by Alex Jennings, a member of the family that owns Swains Island, a tiny atoll about 200 miles north of American Samoa’s main island of Tutuila.
Jennings had listened to a presentation of the various council-funded improvements that had been installed on Tutuila and the islands of Aunu`u, Ta`u and Ofu. These included boat ramps, ice machines, and shelters, all paid for out of the Sustainable Fisheries Fund. The fund, administered by Simonds, receives revenue from fines collected by the Coast Guard from foreign vessels illegally fishing in U.S. waters and from payments made to it by the Hawai`i Longline Association in return for a portion of the territory’s bigeye tuna quota.
Jennings mentioned that he had requested the council’s assistance in helping to develop fishing capacity at Swains Island several years ago, but that nothing had come of it. “How much has this council ever done for Swains?” he asked, after pointing out that a large fraction of the American Samoa exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is a result of being able to include waters around the island, which is actually a part of the Tokelau archipelago.
“Our resources are fish and coconuts, when they were worth something – from the 1800s up to the 1970s,” Jennings said. “Now we have only fish, and we can’t even capitalize on that. I ask the council if there’s any way we can get some assistance for Swains Island.”
Without help from Wespac, Jennings sought out the sanctuary program, “and they have dedicated more resources to Swains Island and brought more exposure and created more opportunities for development than I’ve ever had with the 200 mile EEZ…. Please, let’s be creative. Why don’t you work with Swains, ask what it is we can do for Swains. How we can develop fisheries on Swains Island.”
Simonds’ response was unsympathetic. “Alex, it’s a wonderful thing for you to do to become a part of the sanctuary process,” she said. “I would be curious to know how they’re helping you with development.”
She said that Jennings’ request for assistance was for purchase of a boat, “but the council just doesn’t pay $500,000 for a boat. There needed to be partnerships, and a plan for Swains Island. A lot of structural things have to be done for Swains if you want to make it where you can fish.”
Later in the day, Simonds took exception to comments by Lelei Peau, the deputy director of the Department of Commerce of American Samoa. In a presentation to the council, Peau had insisted that non-commercial fishing was allowed in one of the sanctuary areas off the island of Aunu`u. Before the meeting adjourned, Simonds brought up the subject again: “I have a Federal Register notice in front of me,” she said, addressing Peau. After reading from it, she challenged Peau, “The notice is pretty clear there’s no fishing for bottomfish around Aunu`u.”
Peau replied that trolling and longline fishing were allowed.
“And Aunu`u just happens to be the place where bottomfishing is very very good,” Simonds went on to say. “And it’s something we wrote about to the governor several times last December.”
That was by no means the last word on the subject. The following day, Jennings returned and again addressed the council. He had gone through his email correspondence with Simonds and reported that she had responded favorably to his initial request for assistance, stating that “there are ways we can do this – not only for what I requested for the boat, but also to clear the harbor.” But “immediately after that, from December 2011, we came into the sanctuary public hearings and I can tell you right now – my emails were flooded, not only from council members, but the executive office itself, with statements against the sanctuary. I believe that Swains Island is being discriminated against now because of the decision to include Swains Island in this part of the sanctuary.”
Jennings was cut off after three minutes, being told that time for public comment on non-agenda items had passed.
However, later that same day, the council voted to amend its agenda to allow testimony on non-agenda items from five individuals (including one former council member and one advisor to the council) that had been hastily summoned to testify on the subject of the sanctuary.
Paul Stevenson, governor of the Eastern District of American Samoa (and council member from 1992 to 1998), stated that he was concerned that sanctuary rules would mean a “loss of potential income to this territory, for local fishermen, [of] $1.2 million a year. That’s a lot to take away.” He challenged the decision-making process, suggesting that “there’s a lack of scientific and adequate data or studies…. I think there was too much haste to create this good deed for the rest of the world. We are forgotten in the process.”
Others testifying against the fishing restrictions in the sanctuary included Henry Sesepasara, a former council advisor on matters related to American Samoa – and himself a member of the sanctuary advisory board. According to Sesepasara, the advisory board voted against the expansion of the sanctuary, but was overruled by the territorial governor.
Following the testimony, American Samoa council member William Sword asked Paul Dalzell to give a presentation on fish data in the sanctuary. Although none of this was on the public agenda, Dalzell was able to oblige quickly, with “just a short thing to show the status of bottomfish and coral reef fish in American Samoa with respect to why you might not want to have a sanctuary.”
The data from 1988 to 2011 show the bottomfish stock in the area “is in very good condition, with fishing mortality well below MSY” (maximum sustainable yield), he said.
The representative of the American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga, who sits on the council by virtue of her position, had little to say on the subject of the sanctuary during the public meeting. However, a press release distributed by the council quoted her as saying:
“This sanctuary expansion has caused a lot of public outcry, and, as director of DMWR, I will do whatever I can to stop this expansion from going forth by providing the most accurate scientific evidence for our government to make decisions.”
Officially, however, the sanctuary expansion is a fait accompli.
Genevieve Brighouse, sanctuary superintendent, stated in an email to Environment Hawai`i that “less than one percent [of American Samoan sanctuary] waters is a no-take area” under the expanded sanctuary, she said.
Brighouse also noted that the new rules for fishing in waters around Rose Atoll, now a part of the sanctuary, allow for “customary exchange” fishing, even though commercial fishing is banned.
However, by defining “customary exchange” as the non-market exchange of marine resources … which may include cost recovery through monetary reimbursements,” the rules effectively bless commercial fishing in the area, some commenters have stated.
(The draft rules for Rose Atoll, as well as for the other remote Pacific Islands monuments, were published in the Federal Register in February; comments on them are due April 8.)
Volume 23, Number 10 — April 2013