21 Mar 2017

Landmark victory for American Samoa fishing rights

8:08 pm on 21 March 2017

Large scale commercial fishing will no longer be allowed close to American Samoa's coast thanks to a landmark ruling handed down by the US Federal Court today, Monday, in Hawaii.

Ofu and Olosega in the Manu'as in American Samoa.

Ofu and Olosega in the Manu'as in American Samoa. Photo: American Samoa Tourism

In February last year the US National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, reduced what is known as the Large Vessel Protected Area around the territory from 80 kilometres to 18 kilometres.

American Samoa's government responded by filing a lawsuit, saying the zone had previously been reserved for local alia fishing vessels and the federal agency acted arbitrarily in changing the boundaries.

Today's ruling was in favour of American Samoa effectively rendering the NMFS decision invalid.

Cannery, American Samoa

Cannery, American Samoa Photo: Supplied

Our correspondent in American Samoa reports the major focus of the American Samoa government's lawsuit, seeking to overturn the NMFS decision, centred on the two Deeds of Cession - the 1900 Deed of Cession for Tutuila and Aunu'u island and the 1904 Deeds of Cession for Manu'a - with the United States.

The defendants countered in court documents that the Deeds say nothing, about fishing or marine resources and "that silence should not be read to establish rights."

In a 42-page ruling issued today, Monday, in Hawaii US District Court Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi noted that the Deeds of Cession preserved the American Samoans' right to use their "property" to continue their customary practices, although the deeds did not specifically identify those customary practices.

Cannery, American Samoa

Cannery, American Samoa Photo: Supplied

Judge Kobayashi said the court has concluded that the Deeds of Cession require the United States to preserve American Samoan cultural fishing practices.

Thus, she said, the 2016 LVPA Rule should not have been adopted without a determination that the proposed rule was consistent with the Deeds of Cession.

Based upon federal defendants' positions in this case Judge Kobayashi said it was clear that NMFS did not consider whether the proposed rule that eventually became the 2016 LVPA Rule was consistent with the Deeds of Cession therefore she said "the 2016 LVPA Rule is invalid."

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