TUTUILA, American Samoa — Muddy water laps against a concrete slab on a bed of lava rock at the edge of an empty lagoon.
The small boat ramp, situated between a cement picnic table and a coconut-laden palm, is littered with a thick line of debris deposited by the high tide.
It’s quiet and instant-sweaty hot on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Lion’s Park, a mile from Pago Pago International Airport. A seemingly usual day on this unhurried island in American Samoa.
The boat ramp, and one just like it at Faga’alu Bay about 15 minutes up the road, were built in 2011 with money from the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, a relatively unknown federally managed bankroll that’s financed by fines from illegal fishing and tuna quota-sharing agreements with Hawaii’s longline fleet.
The $80,000 project was expected to provide more access points for fishermen in the southwestern part of Tutuila, the territory’s main island, and hasten emergency response times.
But now some local officials and fishermen are questioning whether the money was wisely spent on the two ramps and other projects in American Samoa that were shepherded by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council and developed using money from the fund.
Monday: The limited number of records released to Civil Beat and members of Congress by federal officials over the past two years shows that money is being used to support projects that benefit council members and political allies.
Tuesday: A reporting trip to American Samoa reveals some of the projects paid for by the fund have been failures or are floundering while a new dock for longliners appears to be well-received by fishing interests and local government officials.
Wednesday: Wespac has a long history of resisting the release of financial information about its operations, underscoring the need for a formal federal investigation.
The Sustainable Fisheries Fund has also drawn the interest of members of Congress who are demanding more accountability from Wespac about how the money is being spent. For years, millions of dollars have gone into and out of the fund with little discussion or public review. That’s raising questions about potential conflicts of interest and favoritism.
A report to Congress produced last year after U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz included the requirement in a Senate appropriations bill was thin on details. And Wespac has been slow to release records on contracts and finances requested by Civil Beat under the Freedom of Information Act.
Hawaii U.S. Rep. Ed Case is concerned that Wespac is more interested in exploiting the fishery for the benefit of the Hawaii longline fleet than ensuring a sustainable catch as required by federal law. He wants to track spending from the fund to see if the projects are in line with conservation goals.
Civil Beat recently traveled to American Samoa to look at projects the fund has paid for. Interviews with local government officials and fishermen suggest there is cause for concern.
Howard Dunham is president of the Alia Fishing Association in American Samoa. The fishermen go after albacore tuna in the waters closer to shore. The alia fishery is considered small scale compared to the longliners, and is distinctive in its use of large catamarans.
Dunham is exasperated with most of the projects that Wespac and the American Samoa government have come up with in recent years, including the small boat ramps.
“It’s a waste of money just for little boats,” Dunham told Civil Beat in a recent interview.
He feels the same way about ice machines and fuel storage facilities that were purchased with the fund and installed on the neighboring Manu’a Islands, where only 1,400 people live.
“Nobody takes care of it,” he said. “They just go to rust.”
The council spent nearly $90,000 on a dozen 500-gallon fuel tanks and another $70,000 on two ice makers for the small islands, about 70 miles east of Tutuila.
A fish market has also floundered in Fagatogo, located in the heart of town, despite an initial infusion of $50,000 and another $100,000 to hire someone to provide local oversight of that project and others in the territory, records show.
The projects were approved by Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds, vetted to some extent by a smaller subcommittee of the council with staff support and developed in coordination with the American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Services, which was headed by Ray Tulafono at the time.
While the plans may have seemed like good ideas then, the current administration is questioning how some have panned out.
There’s little oversight by the federal government once the contracts go out, but that’s just the way the grant process works throughout the U.S., according to Michael Tosatto, a Pacific regional administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA awards the grants to Wespac in lump sums each year based on how much money is available from the fishing fines and quota agreements with the territories. The projects just have to meet the broad objectives outlined in the territory’s three-year marine conservation plan, Wespac approves them and NOAA signs off as long as they meet the goals of the MCP.
Solip Hong, chairman of American Samoa Gov. Lolo Moliga’s fisheries task force, said Wespac has been extremely helpful in bringing in funding for projects but that its communication needs to improve for them to be more successful.
More consideration of where a new asset, like a boat ramp or ice machine, is located would help, fishermen and officials said.
The lagoon at the Lion’s Park boat ramp, located down a grassy embankment behind two giant satellite dishes, is shallow and has limited access. There are no signs pointing to the ramp from the road, but there are signs urging swimmers to stay out of the water because of high bacteria.
There were fewer than 20 vessels on Tutuila that potentially would use the boat ramps when the project was proposed and no one expected more to come after they were built, according to a 2011 environmental assessment by Eric Kingma, a Wespac staff member at the time, and Marlowe Sabater, the territory’s former chief biologist.
Hong said even fewer people would use ice machines on the Manu’a Islands without any alia boats there. The roughly 30-foot aluminum catamarans are common in the territory and considered traditional, unlike the larger longline vessels and even bigger purse seiners that are also prevalent in American Samoa, where fishing has long been a way of life.
“It’s a classic example of miscommunication and not spending the time doing the homework,” he said.
Despite the potential missteps with the ramps, ice machines and market, Wespac and American Samoa have since come up with bigger ways to use the fund.
The council’s latest grant, which NOAA awarded in October, seeks to use $250,000 from the Sustainable Fisheries Fund to extend the Malaloa marina in Pago Pago Harbor by 450 feet so U.S.-flagged longliners have a dedicated space to dock.
The project would benefit two Wespac members who sit on the council’s executive committee that helps decide how the fund should be spent. And it would benefit a dozen or more Honolulu-based longliners who hold dual permits allowing them to fish in American Samoa’s exclusive waters as well as those around the Aloha State.
Wespac Vice Chair Christinna Lutu-Sanchez, president of Tautai-O-Samoa Longline and Fishing Association, owns at least five operational longline boats with her husband, Carlos Sanchez, according to her most recent financial disclosure statement.
She did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The longliners in American Samoa target albacore tuna, a premium product that they sell to StarKist, which operates its cannery and processing facilities on Tutuila.
Wespac Chair Archie Soliai, who also sits on the council’s executive committee, is a senior official at StarKist, one of the world’s biggest tuna purveyors. So what’s good for StarKist is good for him — and many in the community.
The cannery, which is less than 2,000 feet away from the Malaloa dock on the other side of Pago Pago Harbor, creates thousands of jobs and is a major economic driver, said American Samoa Chamber of Commerce board member Gary Walters, who heads Harbor Maritime and Stevedoring.
He’d like to see the port diversify more, since canned tuna is pretty much the only export. The longliners could help with that, he said, noting how there’s been talk of shipping the fresh fish they catch to sashimi markets.
“But old habits are hard to break here,” he said.
On a recent Wednesday evening at the Malaloa marina, sports fishermen are drinking Fijian beers in the back of a pickup truck after returning home from a successful trip. They agree that extending the marina for the longliners makes sense; they just don’t want to lose a dedicated space for recreational fishermen.
They’re not the only ones concerned about how an extended Malaloa wharf would be used.
Henry Sesepasara, who heads the Department of Marine and Wildlife Services, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has informed him that the commercial longliners can’t use the Malaloa marina because it was built with federal funds for recreational and sports fishermen.
“They came down and said that we have been in noncompliance,” he said, “and they’re right.”
He’s in the process of having the dock appraised so the American Samoa government can buy it back with territory money to get out from under that requirement. He’s asked Wespac to hold off on giving the territory the $250,000 from the fund until that gets sorted out.
Even if that mess does get resolved over the next few weeks as Sesepasara expects, it’s not clear where the rest of the money will come from. Estimates to extend the dock have put the price tag at around $3 million — and that’s on the low side.
For the last few years, the only money flowing into the fund has come from the quota-sharing agreements. The Hawaii Longline Association is in the process of negotiating a new deal to replace the one that expires at the end of this year.
American Samoa Gov. Lolo Moliga wants Wespac to split the cost for the project. He has pledged to put $1.5 million toward the dock from a recent settlement with StarKist. The company, which operates in American Samoa but is based in Pittsburgh and owned by South Korea’s Dongwon Enterprise, pleaded guilty to fixing tuna prices in October. It is also facing additional fines from the Environmental Protection Agency for dumping wastewater into Pago Pago Harbor and not upgrading its pollution control systems.
Wespac officials have said they can’t afford to split the cost and have stuck with their quarter-million-dollar contribution. Plus, they already put $190,000 from the fund into the dock’s design and site evaluation a few years ago.
Extending the dock at Malaloa would likely save the longliners time and money because they would no longer have to move their boats whenever a cruise ship or some other vessel needs to dock.
“If you’re a longline owner, it’s a huge concern to have to keep moving your boats,” Soliai said.
He wants to see the fleet expand beyond the 14 U.S. longliners that are left in American Samoa. He’s not sure the dock extension will lure more to the territory but said it would certainly help the tuna business and local economy.
Last month, several longline vessels were tied up where containers are offloaded, about a mile east in the harbor. Other boats had to move when a North Korean cargo ship, the 581-foot Wise Honest, arrived in May. The U.S. seized it last year and towed it to Pago Pago, part of an ongoing international dispute over the country’s nuclear program.
Even Dunham, who as an alia fisherman has no love for the longliners, especially Lutu-Sanchez, said extending the Malaloa wharf to create a dedicated space for the longliners would be “beautiful.”
He just wants to make sure the longliners continue fishing farther out at sea. Right now, the longliners have to go 50 miles from shore and the alia fishermen can stay closer.
Wespac created the so-called large vessel prohibited area in 2002 to help avoid gear entanglements and other conflicts but has been trying to undo the rule — something Sanchez and his wife have advocated — as the longline alia industry has dwindled from about 40 active vessels to one.
The American Samoa government sued Wespac and won after it approved a rule in 2015 to allow the larger longline vessels — those over 50 feet — to fish as close as 12 miles from shore, purportedly to alleviate economic hardship in the longline fleet. While that case is on appeal, the limit remains 50 miles.
Jonathon Pedro and boat captain Leuma Sue are washing down a green catamaran called Salvation No. 2 on a recent Wednesday morning in Pago Pago Harbor.
They’ve just returned from a fishing tournament that Wespac has supported with money from the Sustainable Fisheries Fund. The pair were happy to share the news of the numerous yellowfin and skipjack tuna they caught, not to mention a 422-pound blue marlin.
Sue, who’s originally from independent western Samoa, has been an alia fisherman for 30 years. He said it was hard work when he first started but has enjoyed being a fisherman.
Born and raised on Tutuila, Pedro was a longline alia fisherman for seven years before he decided to go on hiatus. He learned from his father, and his brother is also an alia fisherman.
Fishing is ingrained in the culture in American Samoa, and it’s evident at every turn. Whether it’s the stench of gutted fish that greets the nostrils on the approach to Atu’u, the village where StarKist operates day and night, or the guys hanging around their boats after a quick day-trip, or the oka on so many menus, a raw fish marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk.
Fishermen traditionally share their catch with family members, the village chiefs and ministers in this overwhelmingly Christian U.S. territory of about 60,000 people.
Sesepasara says the Samoan way of life is very family oriented. Fishermen don’t want to be out for several weeks on longline vessels, he said. They prefer going out for a few days on their alia boats.
American Samoa is not known for any other type of economy, Hong says, and the islands are not set up for tourism like Hawaii.
“Commercial fishing is the lifeblood,” he said. “It’s all we’ve done and it’s all we’ve ever known. It’s imperative that we save it however we can.”
Hong sees the Sustainable Fisheries Fund’s potential to aid the fishing industry.
More educational training, for instance, would be helpful — like explaining why upgrades to the fish market were needed. Locals prefer to buy their fish as they always have, along the side of the road or in open-air containers, he said.
“We need to show why flies aren’t the greatest thing to have around your food,” Hong said.
The fund was used to make the market more sanitary, with a water heater for proper cleaning, a low-temperature freezer for certain products and glass-enclosed retail displays. But it’s mostly flopped. The fish market in Fagatogo is only open Fridays at this point, and fishermen have complained that it benefits the longliners more than the alia owners because they catch more fish and can sell them for less money.
Dunham, the alia association president, says the fund could be used to solve local problems. There is a wrecked ship in the harbor, for instance, that he says could be towed out to sea to become an artificial reef and fish-aggregating device — a project he thinks could be done for about $60,000.
For now though, he said the projects getting done seem to be about who you know. With the longliners so closely tied to Simonds, he doesn’t see things changing any time soon.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Before you go . . .
For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.