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Sea of obstacles imperil American Samoa’s tuna industry

Locally based fishermen who supply the lone Starkist tuna cannery in American Samoa are facing a perfect storm of obstacles that are threatening their economic survival. A battle is now on in the U.S. territory to fend off those looming challenges, from rising fuel costs to international competition. Special correspondent Mike Taibbi reports with support from Pacific Islanders in Communications.

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  • Mike Taibbi:

    Morning prayers at the start of the old cannery's 6 AM shift. Charlie Tuna's cannery: Starkist. Some 2,400 workers troop to this 56-year old operation every day.

    'Let us celebrate,' they sing in unison. 'Bless our workers,' implores a supervisor, adding 'as well as our leaders, and management.' Those leaders of an iconic American brand serve a company that's now owned and managed by a South Korean conglomerate Dongwon.

    Inside the cannery, trays are loaded with several types of thawed, cooked, cooled and ready to process tuna.

  • Archie Soliai:

    Skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore..

  • Mike Taibbi:

    The trays are then rolled to the stands where most of Starkist's employees, explains government relations manager Archie Soliai, do the hardest hands-on work.

  • Archie Soliai:

    Seventy percent of that workforce is cleaning the fish. We're skinning, taking out the bones.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Once cleaned, it's measured by hand into pouches, a packaging option gaining consumer popularity, or by automation into cans, the old standby.

  • Archie Soliai:

    We process close to two million cans per day, individual cans.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Plus, tons and tons of fishmeal, oil and other by-products used in agriculture, medicine and nutritional supplements.

    It's an output that's kept Starkist at the top of the consumer tuna pyramid for most of the company's existence and that from the early '60s made Charlie Tuna one of the advertising industry's enduring icons.

  • Starkist Commercial:

    Whatcha doing with it, Charlie?… Sending it to Starkist so they'll notice what good taste I got!

  • Mike Taibbi:

    But today, Starkist's dominance as well as its very existence in American Samoa is not just at risk, it's at the cliff's edge.

    The main problems? A declining market generally for processed tuna products, down 40 percent in the three decades ending in 2017. An American Samoa- mandated minimum wage for its vast workforce that's three and four times the wage paid to cannery workers in other countries in the region like Thailand. A $100 million dollar fine levied against Starkist last September after the company admitted its role in a price-fixing conspiracy, with potentially crippling consumer lawsuits still pending. And finally, an increasingly bitter dispute over which boats get to fish which waters.

    Consider these locally-based longline boats, boats over 100 feet long that spool out miles of line and thousands of hooks in a single set, often returning with more than 30 tons of prized albacore tuna. They've fished this way for decades.

    Carlos Sanchez is a veteran longliner, but he's in the process of giving it up.

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    All my boats are for sale. I have seven boats, and they are for sale.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    "You have no hope for the industry?

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    We have no help for the industry!…"

  • Mike Taibbi:

    In 2002, the U.S. federal agency National Marine Fisheries Service banned large-vessel longliners like Sanchez's boat, as well as even bigger boats called purse-seiners.. from fishing within 50 miles of American Samoa. Those close-in waters were reserved to protect a handful of local small boat fishermen called alia fishermen from competition from larger boats. The alias represent the traditional subsistence fishing that's nourished these islands for centuries.

  • Ma’atulimanu Sausi Maea:

    Behind this is a ridge here, another good fishing ground.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Alias like Ma'atulimanu Sausi Maea mostly a charter and sport fisherman.

  • Ma’atulimanu Sausi Maea:

    Once you allow the bigger vessels to enter the 50-mile zone that's native to the local traditional alias, then we will be out of fish! barely–i can catch, sometimes i go out and don't catch nothing!

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Nonsense, insist longliners like Vince Haleck and Rasela Feliciano. The alias hardly need a 50 mile limit.

  • Vince Haleck:

    The alias don't go out that far. They can't go out –they can barely go out three miles, so there's this water that can be accessible to us to help us, but we can't have access to it.

  • Rasela Feliciano:

    We're American Samoans. We're not foreigners. Imagine how it feels to be an outcast in your own home. You know, it's a terrible feeling.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Feelings on all sides have been hurt and have hardened into lawsuits.

  • Henry Sesepasara:

    You're right. There's a war going on.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    The territory's director of marine life resources, Henry Sesepasara, told us the courts will have to pick the winner. The alia interests he supports or the big longliners he says are interested only in profits at the expense of any traditional interests.

  • Henry Sesepasara:

    We could come out to some compromise, but they don't want that. They don't want nothing to do with us anymore…

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And there are other restrictions: other sovereign nation's rules and hefty fees determining who can fish where. It all means the fishable waters for American Samoa-based boats are fewer in number and further away. That favors the biggest boats with the greatest fishing range and the biggest storage holds for the supply of tuna that Starkist needs.

    The vast majority of the fish processed at this cannery are brought in by purse seiners, which as the name implies is a vessel that drops a huge purse, or 'net', into the water and in the course of a single fishing trip can bring in as much as 1500 tons of tuna.

    But will Starkist continue to rely on the big purse seiners that supply 80% of the fish the company processes here? The richest fleets of these larger boats are exploring less expensive canneries elsewhere. Especially the boats from one country.

  • Archie Soliai:

    The Chinese fishing fleet has grown from 80 boats about 10 years ago to about 550.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    That's not competition, that's annihilation.

  • Archie Soliai:

    Yeah. It's widely known they subsidize their fleets. Their industries are heavily subsidized. and the further out they fish, the more uneconomical it is for them to bring the fish back.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    For now these local longliners, hoping for a miracle they can't envision, steam further out than they want to, often going without insurance or repairs they can't afford just to cut the fishing-trip costs they say are crippling them. Each trip takes a month or more.

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    Fifty thousand.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Just to leave port?

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    Just to leave port. $50 thousand is $30 thousand in fuel, $5 thousand in food, oil…

  • Mike Taibbi:

    What are your maintenance costs?

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    Every year costs me $100,000.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Per boat

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    Per boat.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    They all say their end of the fishery that's long sustained them and their families… is in freefall.

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    I've lost more than a half-million dollars and I cannot continue like that.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And while these long-liners say it can't go on like this, and won't…

    Starkist has made clear that its choices are limited: cut the workforce way way down: shut down this operation for good and relocate to a country with cheaper labor costs, like Thailand; or, declare bankruptcy. With each option, the longliners lose.

  • Starkist Commercial:

    Sorry, Charlie….

  • Mike Taibbi:

    As we stand here today, none of you know whether or not there's going to be an announcement in the next week, the next month, the next six months from Starkist saying, 'we're out of here!'.

  • Vince Haleck:

    We don't know.

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    We don't know when.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    You've already in your own mind concluded that that's the way it's going to go?

  • Carlos Sanchez:

    That's the way it's going to go!

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And if Starkist shuts down here or goes under altogether? Well, here's where all sides in the cannery's fight to survive agree: disaster for American Samoa.

    That's because through all its history here, Starkist has been an employment multiplier…for just about every job here there's a job in an outside business or company that supplies or depends upon the cannery.

  • Archie Soliai:

    With an island of 55,000 people, we're talking 4,500 jobs…

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Losing all those jobs would be devastating enough, but the macro-view is even more grim:

    The only way to keep shipping costs and fuel and electricity prices down for an island where everything comes in by container is to have a dependable supply of some product to ship out.

  • Archie Soliai:

    The cannery is able to provide return cargo for those freight vessels that come in. The freight rate is still high when you compare it to the U.S. level but it's still modest if you look at it in the region. And if the Starkist volume goes away, estimates are that those numbers will increase about 40 percent.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    The longliners say they're afraid they're going to wake up one morning and the decision will have been made that that's it, that there's no way for them to fight. They're right, aren't they? It could happen that suddenly?"

  • Archie Soliai:

    It's highly possible.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Where do you guys stand on all those options that are out there–

  • Archie Soliai:

    Mike, I think that's above my pay grade. What I can say is the company's looking at all options. I think it's fair to say that it comes down to a business decision.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And because Starkist is the biggest private employer in American Samoa, that will be a business decision that's felt across the entire region.

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