The Tuna Canneries

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No discussion of industrial tuna fishing in the Pacific Islands would be complete without some mention of the role played by the tuna canneries, especially those in American Samoa. In the late 1940s the British colony of Fiji was developing a pole-and-line tuna fleet. Because the market for tuna at that time was almost exclusively in the USA, access to American consumers under favourably import tariff conditions was considered essential. Using duty-free provisions enjoyed by American Samoa for access to American markets, a Fiji fishing company was instrumental in establishing a small canning operation in Pago Pago. Harold Gatty (an aviation pioneer), using connections obtained by being the navigator aboard the first circumnavigation flight, acquired Rockefeller Foundation money ($1.5 million) for a cannery in Pago Pago. Fish caught in Fiji were transshipped to a USA flag vessel and unloaded at Pago Pago. Although a clever concept, it was years ahead of the catching technology. The tuna production from the pole/line tuna fleet in Fiji fluctuated wildly. The cannery was not able to operate profitably on this inconsistent supply, processed only 6 tonnes of fish, and soon closed. The American Samoa government eventually purchased the cannery for US$40 000. Undaunted, Gatty went on to establish in association with Pan Am Airways the first transpacific air service and later became a founder of what was to become Fijiís Air Pacific. (Gillett, 1994).

After the first cannery attempt, American Samoa obtained additional advantages when in 1953 the unloading of fish by non-USA flag vessels directly in Pago Pago was allowed. The biggest legal advantage, however, concerns tariff provisions mentioned above. Under Headnote 3(a) of the USA Tariff Schedule, products from American Samoa can be exported to the USA if the local component is at least 30 percent of the value. This is a substantial advantage as canned tuna imported into the USA from other countries are subject to a 35 percent duty for an oil pack or from 6 percent to 12.5 percent for tuna canned in water. These provisions enticed the Van Camp Seafood Company to establish a cannery in 1953 at the site of the original venture. In 1963 StarKist Foods opened a second cannery alongside Van Camp.

The two American Samoa canneries receive fish off-loaded from USA purse seine vessels and Asian longliners, as well as fish brought to American Samoa by refrigerated carrier from other places in the Pacific and even from other oceans. It is estimated that approximately 200000 tonnes of tuna is processed annually at the two canneries in American Samoa. These canneries currently supply about 50 percent of the USA market for canned tuna (Gillett, McCoy and Itano, 2002). Other tuna canneries have subsequently been established in the Pacific Islands region. These are the Pacific Fishing Company cannery at Levuka, Fiji, the Soltai cannery at Noro in the Solomon Islands, and the RD cannery at Madang, Papua New Guinea. Over the past few decades there have been a large number of proposals for additional tuna canneries. Reasons that these plans have not come to fruition include lack of sufficient fresh water, stiff competition from efficient Asian facilities, and the fact that cannery proposals have been used as ploys for such matters as gaining fishing access and labour concessions in neighbouring countries.

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