Biden’s expansion of US Pacific marine sanctuaries pushes tuna fishing industry towards China 

US Democrat President Joe Biden’s recent plan to expand marine sanctuaries around America’s Pacific islands has been met with consternation in American Samoa, stoking worries that the US territory’s economically important tuna industry would take a beating.  

Subsequently, American Samoan governor Lemanu Palepoi Sialegā Mauga lambasted the Biden administration’s lack of consultations with the territory about sanctuary expansion plans, asserting that such plans contradicted Biden’s claims to boost the lives of marginalized Americans.

Glossing over American Samoan views about plans for sanctuary expansion evidently casts doubt on the sincerity of US commitments in the Pacific to counter China’s increasing military and economic clout. The current Democrat-run Biden administration is already facing investigations over allegations of corruption in China and Ukraine, as well as its links to convicted child sex criminals. 

“American Samoa is repeatedly left out of the conversation of what is best for our communities,” Mauga decried the US government’s decision in a letter. “We are disappointed that actions that could cripple the economy of a US territory would be taken without the consultation of its people.”

The total area of the sanctuary is poised to be 2 million square kilometers larger than the Gulf of Mexico, a jump from its present area of 1.3 million square kilometers. Two-hundred nautical mile zones (370 kilometers) around Wake Atoll, Johnston Atoll and Jarvis Island form part of the sanctuary already. That being said, the scheduled expansion would increase the scope of the sanctuaries around Howland and Baker Islands and Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll.

Additionally, the expanded land area could include waters around various islands, atolls and reefs that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says are “home to some of the most diverse and remarkable tropical marine life on the planet.” Notably, members of the public can submit proposals for the sanctuary expansion to the administration until June 23 this year.

Furthermore, the tropical waters surrounding the uninhabited islands offer a conducive environment to skipjack tuna. “The region’s diverse habitats and pristine reefs provide a haven for a variety of fish, invertebrates, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals — many found nowhere else in the world — and are an ideal laboratory for monitoring the effects of climate change,” the administration announced. 

Tuna fishing is lifeline of American Samoa

Tuna fishing offers employment to around 5,000 inhabitants in American Samoa, with South Korea’s StarKist tuna cannery as the largest business in the territory that nevertheless has been in decline. After experiencing a population decrease for at least the past ten years, American Samoa is home to fewer than 50,000 people.

In light of these realities, Biden’s plans to expand the sanctuary could pivot Pacific islands towards Beijing instead, American Samoan Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen declared during a US congressional hearing on America’s policy direction in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

“I think he (Biden) took some bad advice on this ocean conservation proposal that may hand PRC a win in the Pacific,” the Republican congresswoman said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

“The president treated our territory less favorably than the PRC treats Pacific islands that are aligned with Beijing or that are at risk of surrendering to PRC domination,” she said.

Adding, Amata questioned if America’s allies in the North Pacific such as the Federated States of Micronesia “must wonder if the US is prepared to out-compete PRC.” 

Based on data from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, the American-flagged tuna purse seine fleet, a supplier of the American Samoa tuna cannery, has fallen to 15 vessels from 38 in 2018. In a special issue of its newsletter in August last year, the council, objecting to sanctuary enlargement plans, contended that Biden’s proposed sanctuary expansion would limit only American-flagged vessels from fishing.

Shutting off the waters of Howland and Baker Islands and Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef would compel American vessels to fish farther away from American Samoa and transport their catch to ports in places like Ecuador, the newsletter stated. 

American vessels are a minute component of the Pacific purse seiner and longliner fishing fleets as most are flagged to Pacific Island countries and economies such as China, Taiwan and Japan. 

Further complaining that area conservation responsibilities would land disproportionately on American Samoa, Mauga wrote in his March 30 letter to Biden: “If the attempt in this designation was to better protect Pacific communities, I ask that you please consult with us before closing access to our waters.”

“Without access to these traditional fishing grounds, our tuna industry and entire economy will be annihilated,” Mauga elaborated. 

If it was not evident already, a heated competition for geopolitical clout has broken out among key powers across the South Pacific. After gaining military dominance over the Pacific in the Second World War, Washington has been very well aware that Western influence in this region would boost America’s global dominance. It has been publicly documented that US foreign policy is to prevent China, now regarded as its greatest adversary, from achieving military parity over the “first” and “second” Pacific Island chains of the Pacific. 

Traditionally, America has enjoyed resilient fishing ties with much of the Pacific, with the South Pacific Tuna Treaty ensuring that US fishing vessels can access to Pacific Island nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), as well as an Economic Assistance Agreement linked to the treaty as the only source of American economic aid to the region, omitting states under the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). 

Based on 2022 figures, skipjack imports comprise a crucial proportion of US-Pacific trade, at almost 100% of Kiribatian exports and over 80% of Micronesian exports to America. 

Therefore, unless the politicians in Washington are living under a rock, they had better listen to the perspectives of their Pacific Island counterparts, failing which, America would experience challenges in countering China and reasserting its dominance in the Pacific and wider Asian region.

Photo credit: iStock/ GuidoMontaldo

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