PAGO PAGO (CN News Service/Pacnews) — The American Samoa government was dealt a setback Friday last week when the Ninth Circuit Court reversed a decision that blocks large fishing vessels from fishing in a zone around their territory.
In 2016, the government of American Samoa claimed in a federal lawsuit the United States shrank a prohibited fishing zone around the South Pacific territory that was meant specifically for local fishers. The zone changed from 50 nautical miles to 12.
Boats larger than 50 feet were blocked from fishing and meant to avoid gear conflicts and competition between large fishing operations and local vessels.
American Samoa, through its status as an unorganized sovereign territory, is allowed a special right to maintain its traditions, culture and control of its lands and waters under a treaty signed in 1900 between several island chiefs and the U.S government.
But in 2016, the U.S. government said there was only one small vessel in the territory that was fishing in the waters — something the American Samoa government denied in its federal complaint filed in the District of Hawaii.
American Samoa claimed the U.S rule change ignored the relevance of the local fishery to the Samoan culture and the 1900 treaty, referred to as the Deed of Cession of Tutuila.
The territory of American Samoa also argued the 2016 rule violated the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which determines regional stocks and catch limits meant to consider the social and economic needs of states.
In March 2017, a federal judge found that the government’s final rule was invalid because it did not take into consideration whether the change was consistent with the treaty and said the U.S government acted “arbitrarily and capriciously because it relied on a rationale that was contrary to the evidence before it.”
The National Marine Fisheries Services appealed the judgment.
In a four-page memorandum released Friday last week, a three-judge panel reversed the court’s judgment. They found the government agency did not ignore input from the American Samoa government or ASG and the impact to the small alia fishing boats, sometimes called catamarans.
“It is of little import that NMFS did not specifically cite the cessions when detailing the ‘other applicable laws’ it consulted, as NMFS considered the consequences of the rule on alia fishing boats, and rationally determined the effects were not significant,” the memorandum states.
The judges noted that since 2006 just a handful of alia vessels operated on a regular basis and only one was active in 2013 and 2014.
“The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council and ASG are developing strategies to develop and increase alia fishing, however, and NMFS will annually review the effects of the rule, providing ASG the opportunity for further input and challenge,” the panel wrote.
An email to the American Samoa government’s attorney for comment was not immediately answered.
U.S Circuit Judges Mary Margaret McKeown, a Clinton appointee, and Bridget Bade and Danielle Hunsaker, both Trump appointees, served on the panel.
The case was originally argued before a panel that included Senior U.S Circuit Judge Jerome Farris who died in July. According to the Ninth Circuit, Hunsaker reviewed the briefs, records and oral arguments to replace Farris.