Congresswoman Amata opposes Pacific Remote Islands expansion plan

Photo: Aumua Amata/Twitter

Closing off more areas around the Pacific Remote Islands would only invite foreign vessels to poach into the U.S. waters, American Samoa delegate Uifa’atali Amata Radewagen said, opposing the Biden administration’s new plan to expand the existing monument.

Radewagen criticised the administration for not making any effort to discuss the plan with the Pacific delegations prior to announcing the initial process to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Monument to the southwest of Hawaii.

“What changed? Why were we not given the courtesy of a discussion or even advance notice of this policy?” she asked in a letter Thursday to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

Following Biden’s order last week, the Department of Commerce said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency will issue a notice of intent within 30 days to begin the public scoping process to initiate the designation of a national marine sanctuary in the Pacific Remote Islands.

“The Commerce Department and the Department of the Interior will also conduct a public process to work with regional indigenous cultural leaders to appropriately rename the existing Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, and potentially the islands themselves, to honor the area’s heritage, ancestral pathways and stopping points for Pacific island voyagers,” the department said in a statement Friday.

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition, which both advocated for the monument’s expansion, welcomed Biden’s move.

“We are pleased the Biden administration is listening to the indigenous, Native Hawaiian, and local communities that are calling for the protection of this special place as part of the National Marine Sanctuary System,” said Shannon Colbert, vice president of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

“Sanctuary designation would protect sites that are important to the preservation and prosperity of Indigenous cultures as well as habitat for threatened and endangered species including sharks, turtles, seabirds, whales, manta rays, and more. Some endemic species in these waters are found nowhere else on Earth,” Colbert said.

The proposed new national marine sanctuary will cover 777,000 square miles around the Pacific Remote Islands.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Radewagen reiterated concerns raised by other American Samoan officials that expanding the existing monument would destroy the territory’s fishing industry, which makes up about 80 percent of the local economy.

“I also cannot see how destroying the economy of the southern-most U.S. territory and declaring vast sections of the Pacific unfishable for our neighbors in a time of strategic competition with China will help our diplomatic efforts in the region,” she said.

“This action is especially more concerning given that our law enforcement efforts and U.S. Coast Guard presence in the region are limited. This action is tantamount to the federal government tying our hands while CCP fishing vessels rob our house,” Radewagen added.

In a July 2022 newsletter, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council warned about the unintended consequences of the plan to expand the marine sanctuary, which was first established in 2009 and later expanded for Wake, Johnston and Jarvis.

“While this second expansion would also carry similar conservation measures (that are already upheld to 50 nm), there are significant negative implications that apply unnecessary burdens to U.S. fishermen participating in the American Samoa-based purse seine fleet,” the council said.

“The Antiquities Act that presidents use to establish monuments is not a transparent process, but implemented through a ‘top-down’ approach that conflicts with equity and environmental justice principles.”

The council agreed with territorial officials’ argument that more restrictions on U.S.-flagged vessels jeopardise the American Samoa economy.

“The proposed expansion of the PRIMNM would only restrict U.S.-flagged vessels, possibly leading them to reflag under other nations where existing domestic and international conservation measures are far more lax,” the council said.

The council reported that since 2018, the U.S. tuna purse seine fleet, which supplies the American Samoa tuna cannery, has dwindled from 38 vessels to 15 vessels today.

The StarKist cannery in Pago Pago employs 5,000 of the territory’s workforce of 18,000. “Following the closure of one of two canneries in American Samoa more than a decade ago, the gross domestic production fell by 25 percent,” the council said.