American Samoans fear tuna fishing limits in Pacific Ocean sanctuary could threaten their livelihood
The industry supports about 5,000 jobs in American Samoa, chief among those a StarKist Co. tuna cannery.
by Nolan Stout, Court House News, July 18, 2023
(CN) — Iosefa Tanuvasa is worried.
Life isn’t easy, but she’s able to provide for her six children through her job at the StarKist Co. tuna cannery in Pago Pago, American Samoa. What worries her is the future of her job and family if the proposed Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary restricts tuna fishing in the region, a vital piece of the economy to the U.S. territory.
“For now, we need money to survive and help develop our families, we don’t need a proposal that will lead to closure of our cannery due to higher cost of supplying fish for the cannery,” Tanuvasa wrote to the federal government. “This will heavily impact this nation.”
Tanuvasa is among dozens of American Samoans raising the alarm about the proposed marine sanctuary covering 770,000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean, bigger than the entire state of Alaska.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is entering the second phase of the process to protect the area around seven islands in the Pacific Ocean as a marine sanctuary. The land masses are among the nine claimed by the U.S. with no permanent population: Kingman Reef, Wake, Johnson and Palmyra atolls and Howland, Baker and Jarvis islands.
In addition to a variety of fish, the area has habitats for sea birds and coral reefs.
“The area has amazing coral resources that are found almost nowhere else in the U.S. territories,” said Brady Phillips, a senior policy specialist of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
The waters also are ideal for skipjack tuna, which travel the equator. Tuna fishing supports about 5,000 jobs in American Samoa, a U.S. territory with a population of about 49,000, according to Benar News. The StarKist cannery is among the island’s top employers.
National marine sanctuaries are designated to preserve environmental resources. NOAA can require a permit to alter the seabed, for instance, and place restrictions oil and gas drilling.
Many Samoans have implored the agency to avoid restricting commercial fishing, which they say could raise costs for StarKist and lead it to close the cannery.
President Joe Biden in March directed the Department of Commerce, which includes NOAA, to "consider initiating a sanctuary designation" to expand protection of the Pacific islands, part of the president's announcement creating national monuments in Texas and Nevada.
However Governor Lemanu Palepoi Sialega Mauga said “not a single representative” of the Biden administration contacted anyone in American Samoa's government before announcing the proposal. He said “without access to these traditional fishing grounds, our tuna industry and entire economy will be annihilated.”
“American Samoa is repeatedly left out of the conversation of what is best for our communities,” Lemanu wrote to Biden. “We are disappointed that actions that could cripple the economy of a U.S. territory would be taken without the consultation of its people.”
Delegate Aumua Amata Radewagen, the island’s nonvoting member of Congress, implored officials to include exceptions to commercial and subsistence fishing in any final regulations.
“[T]his action seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to placate environmental activists who are hostile to, or at the very least ignorant of, the ways of life of people who actually live in the Pacific,” she wrote.
Tune Vaouli, a resident of American Samoa, wrote a letter to NOAA saying restrictions on fishing would affect “everyone who lives here in Pago Pago.”
“I do not see the relevance as to why residents that do not reside here on American Samoa feel that this expansion is good for the people of American Samoa. This is [not] and will not be the result of this action if it is approved,” Vaouli wrote. “Not only do we not have the economic power to survive such action, but we will suffer in the long run.”
This map shows the area proposed for the Remote Pacific Islands National Marine Sanctuary. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The long road to designation
Designating a new marine sanctuary won't happen overnight, nor without substantial input from the public.
NOAA's online comment portal includes dozens of form letters from the League of Conservation Voters supporting the designation. The letters say the area’s “diverse tropical marine wildlife” are “highly vulnerable to climate change, invasive species, and debris from industrial fishing and shipping.”
The Sierra Club of Hawaii backs the sanctuary, saying it would create the largest area of protected ocean in the world.
“Protecting wild places like the Pacific Remote Islands is as important as ever in the face of climate change, overfishing and threats like deep-sea mining,” the organization wrote. “Current data and modeling show that expanded protections for the waters of the Pacific Remote Islands would contribute to the climate resilience of the Pacific.”
Lua'itaua Gene Pan, a member of the American Samoa House of Representatives, said beyond providing jobs, StarKist has contributed to development of infrastructure, public service and education, and is a vital source of tax revenue.
Lua’itaua, who worked at the cannery for 17 years, opined that the proposal poses “a significant threat to our economy and the livelihoods of our citizens.”
“Losing StarKist would not only lead to a decline in employment opportunities but also increase shipping costs, leading to a higher cost of living for our community,” Lua’itaua wrote. “This, in turn, could potentially lead to an economic crisis and a rise in crime rates. StarKist plays a crucial role in shouldering various costs, such as utilities, shipping, transportation, and taxes, which support our infrastructure and contribute to the well-being of our residents.”
NOAA's Phillips said concerns about the tuna cannery were prominent in the public hearings. The portal has received around 57,000 comments about the proposal, which will be synthesized and considered as the agency forms a draft plan and environmental impact statements.
The designation process starts with a notice in the Federal Register. NOAA then seeks information from the public, researches the potential boundaries of protections and which resources may need safeguarding, and publishes a draft proposal covering management, environmental impact and potential regulations. More public meetings follow before the final draft is ready for public review.
In all, designation is a "multi-year process," Phillips said.
Protections old and new
Sitting in the middle of the triangle of Hawaii, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, only three of the islands have even a part-time population. The Air Force has facilities on Johnson and Wake and The Nature Conservancy operates a research station on Palmyra.
Parts of the region's waters were protected through the establishment of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument by President George W. Bush in 2009. The monument, which goes through a less rigorous and public review process, was expanded by President Barack Obama in 2014.
“Research continues to reveal the importance of these relatively unexplored habitats to the health, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration of the ocean,” Biden wrote in a March memo to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Although uninhabited, the islands' long history dates back to Pacific islanders who navigated the area in antiquity, which would be incorporated into the designation.
“It’s not just all about fishing or fishing for tuna,” Phillips said. “There’s a history. There’s a bigger story.”
Palmyra Atoll was annexed by the independent Kingdom of Hawaii in 1862 and, when the nation was annexed by the U.S. in 1898, Palmyra became part of the new territory.
Wake Island was claimed in 1899 because federal officials felt it would support a telegraph cable station and key coaling station halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. The Japanese seized Wake in a battle shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and occupied it until the end of World War II.
Meanwhile the other land masses — Baker, Howland, Jarvis, Johnson and Kingman — have a bigger role in an often-overlooked portion of U.S. history revolving around fertilizer.
The islands were among many claimed by the government in the late 1800s as a source of nitrogen-rich guano, the term for bird or bat droppings used as fertilizer. Guano provided vital nutrients to farmers trying to keep their soil fertile enough to keep up with production needs.
“[S]prinkled in small quantities over the nitrogen-parched farms of North America, the stuff worked miracles,” wrote Daniel Immerwahr, a history professor at Northwestern University, in his 2019 book “How to Hide an Empire.”
Congress passed the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which proclaimed that whenever a U.S. citizen discovered guano on an unclaimed, uninhabited island, the president had discretion to claim the island. When the last claim was filed in 1902, the U.S. had acquired 94 guano islands, including Baker, Howland, Jarvis, Johnson and Kingman.
Phillips noted that NOAA is very early in the designation process and has not made any determination about what regulatory measures it will propose.
NOAA plans to hold workshops in American Samoa in the fall and release a draft proposal in late winter or spring of 2024. After it’s published, the agency will hold more meetings in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.