American Samoa Introduces New Regulations to Protect Sharks and 3 Types of Fish

In the News

The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources has promulgated new regulations protecting these rare marine species which took effect on November 11, 2012. American Samoa has acted to protect all sharks plus three species of large coral reef fish in all the waters of the territory of American Samoa. It is now illegal to catch or even possess:

  1. Humphead Wrasse;
  2. Bumphead Parrotfish;
  3. Giant Grouper; or
  4. any species of shark anywhere in the territory or territorial waters.

Territorial waters extend 3 nautical miles from the shoreline. All sizes and ages and any parts are fully protected, at all times, everywhere in the territory. These regulations are the most powerful protection for sharks in the USA, and provide the only protection for the other three reef fish within the USA, except for where all fish are protected.

Because possession of all parts of these species is illegal, shark fins are illegal in the territory, including transshipping sharks or fins. Because none of these fish can be brought into the territory, the protection of this regulation may extend to nearby waters where fishers would bring their catch into the territory. These fish were protected first with an Executive Order of the Governor, and then additionally by these newly adopted fishing regulations by the Dept. Marine & Wildlife Resources.

A recent scientific paper published by NOAA’s CRED division in Hawaii estimated that the territory has just 4-8% of the sharks it would have if there were no people (Nadon et al. 2012). Reef sharks are slow growing, late maturing, and produce very few pups each year, and thus can not sustain anything but the lightest fishing pressure. The primary reason for the low number of sharks is fishing, though other effects of human activities, like sediment, nutrient and chemical runoff may contribute by damaging fish habitat, and the number of fish is also affected by the amount of juvenile habitat. Our Marine Protected Areas are too small to protect sharks, they swim over large areas and will swim outside the MPAs and can be caught.

There used to be a few schools of bumphead parrotfish here, but now only about one fish per year is sighted, and they appear to be close to local extinction. Spear fishing using lights at night is especially effective at taking these parrotfish, because they sleep together on the bottom in a school in the same place every night. Bumpheads have been driven to local extinction on some islands in Fiji, something we want to avoid here. Humphead wrasse are less common here than many places where there are no people. Giant groupers and some kinds of sharks appear to be naturally rare here and elsewhere. If the last ones are caught, they could become locally extinct, and we want to avoid that by protecting them.

All these fish are large, reaching 4 feet or more in length and 100-600 pounds, depending on the species. Fishing usually removes the largest fish first. There is direct evidence from a NOAA CRED study that islands in the US Pacific, including American Samoa, which have people have fewer big fish than islands without people, while populated islands have just as many small fish as unpopulated islands (Williams et al. 2011).

American Samoa is now a world leader in protecting its large coral reef fish species. The American Samoa Government has adopted these new regulations to help fish populations recover to help create a balanced ecosystem which includes sustainable fishing yields and supports traditional cultural practices which are important locally. The largest coral reef fish are overfished on most coral reefs around the world where people are near, making this a widespread problem. Overfishing is one of the largest effects people have on reefs and can leave reefs vulnerable to masses of algae growing over the coral. Large fish are very attractive for scuba divers, and scuba diving tourism is a major income earner for small tropical island countries. In a few places like Palau, shark diving tourism is a major part of the economy. Dive tourism is non-consumptive, and where it is feasible, can provide much greater local economic benefits than fishing.

For more information, contact:

Douglas Fenner, Ph.D.
Coral Reef Ecologist
Dept. Marine & Wildlife Resources
American Samoa
684 633-4456 (work)