The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources has promulgated new regulations protecting these rare marine species, which took effect on Nov. 11, 2012. American Samoa has acted to protect all sharks plus three species of large coral reef fish in all the waters of its territory. It is now illegal to catch or even possess humphead wrasse, bumphead parrotfish, giant grouper, or 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 United States, and provide the only protection for the other three reef fish within the U.S., 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 Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources.
A recent scientific paper published by NOAA’s CRED division in Hawaii estimated that the territory has just 4-8 percent 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 cannot 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. American Samoa’s 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 at the bottom in a school in the same place every night. Bumpheads have been driven to local extinction on some islands in Fiji. 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.
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 U.S. 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).
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.