American Samoa Archipelago

mapAmerican Samoa is the only US territory located south of the equator. Its geography, political status, history, culture and economy are vastly different from those of the typical community in the continental United States. Its history of fishing spans over three millennia and is shaped by traditional Samoan values that exert a strong influence on when and why people fish, how they distribute their catch, and the meaning of fish within the society.

American Samoa’s domestic fisheries today continue that heritage and consist of a fleet of about 30 mostly longline vessels with landings of approximately 11 million pounds (principally, albacore tuna) in the pelagic fishery and less than 30 part-time smaller commercial vessels landing between 6,000 to 30,000 lbs annually in the bottomfish fishery. The subsistence and small-scale commercial coral reef fishery and crustacean fishery employ various gear types including hook and line, spear gun and gillnets. Since 2001 commercial reef fish catches are estimated to be below 20,000 pounds annually. An estimated 1,271 lbs of spiny lobsters are sold each year, without taking into account subsistence and recreational catches. Precious corals are found in American Samoa waters but are not currently harvested.

Fisheries 0 to 3 miles from shore are managed by the Territorial government. Fishery management measures for the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) beyond 3 miles are found in the American Samoa Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP) and the Pacific Pelagics FEP. The American Samoa FEP covers all but the pelagic species and includes a management structure that emphasizes community participation and enhanced consideration of the habitat and ecosystem, protected species and other elements not typically incorporated in fishery management decision-making. Enforcement of federal fishery regulations is handled through a joint federal-territorial partnership. Annual reports on the fisheries are produced by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, with data collection responsibilities shared by various territorial and federal agencies.

(click here for a brochure on the American Samoa Fishery Ecosystem Plan)


The American Samoa archipelago is located in the South Pacific Ocean and consists of five islands and two atolls—Tutuila, Aunuu, Rose, Swains and the Manua group of Tau, Olosega and Ofu. The total land mass of about 200 sq. km (77 sq. miles) is surrounded by about 390,000 sq. km (242,000 sq. miles) of US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters. The largest island, Tutuila, is the center of government and business and home to 90 percent of America Samoa’s total estimated population of 70,000. It features Pago Pago Harbor, the deepest and one of the most sheltered bays in the South Pacific.

Political Status

American Samoa is considered “unincorporated” because the US Constitution does not apply in full. The primacy of Samoan custom over all sources of traditional law is recognized by the Samoan Constitution (enacted in 1967), by the Tripartite Convention of 1899 that created the territory and by subsequent amendments and authority. Article 1, Section 3 of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of American Samoa states: “It shall be the policy of the government of American Samoa to protect persons of Samoan Ancestry against alienation of their lands and the destruction of the Samoan way of life and language, contrary to their best interests. Such legislation as may be necessary may be enacted to protect the lands, customs, culture and traditional Samoan family organization of persons of Samoan ancestry, and to encourage business enterprises by such persons. No change in the law respecting the alienation or transfer of land or any interest therein, shall be effective unless the same be approved by two successive legislatures by a two-thirds vote of the entire membership of each house and by the Governor.”

American Samoan natives born in the Territory are US nationals and not American citizens. American Samoans are categorized as native Americans by the US government. The Territory is represented by a non-voting member in US House of Representatives. The US Department of the Interior, Office of Insular Affairs, provides technical assistance, represents territorial views to the federal government and oversees federal expenditures and operations.

The Governor is the head of the American Samoa government. There are two legislative chambers and an independent judiciary. Administratively, the Territory is divided into three districts and two unorganized atolls, which are subdivided into 74 villages. The protocols of the Fa`amatai (chiefly system) and the Fono (council made of chiefs, or matais) operate at the family, village, regional and national levels. They decide on distribution of family exchanges and tenancy of communal lands.


The people known today as Samoans inhabited the islands of present-day American Samoa about 3,500 years ago. Prior to Western contact, the history of American Samoa was inextricably linked to that of neighboring Western Samoa (now independent Samoa). Tui Manu`a, from the Manu`a Islands of present-day American Samoa, at one time ruled most of the South Pacific, including Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tokelau and elsewhere. Through bloody wars, Tonga freed itself and formed the Tui Tonga empire around AD 950. `Aho`eitu, the first Tui Tonga, was the son of a deified Samoan high chief and a Tongan woman of great noble birth. Many years later, Tonga ruled over Samoa until Samoa freed herself. The Manu`a Islands were the only island group that remained independent. The islands of Tutuila and Aunu`u were politically connected to Upolu island, in what is now independent Samoa.

Western contact in the 18th century included a battle with French explorers and islanders on Tutuila. Missionaries arrived in the 19th century. In 1899, under the Tripartite Convention, Germany and United States divided the Samoan archipelago, and the eastern islands became the US territory of American Samoa.

The territory’s seven islands and atolls were ceded to the United States in the Deed of Cession of Tutuila in 1900 and Deed of Cession of Manu`a in 1904. The last sovereign of Manu`a was forced to sign the Deed of Cession of Manu`a following a series of US trials in Pago Pago, Ta`u and a board a Pacific squadron gunboat. During WWII, US marines outnumbered the local population. After World War II, there was a movement for independence, but it was suppressed in 1930 by the US Navy and the US Congress sent a committee to investigate the status of American Samoa, led by Americans who had been part of the overthrow of the Hawaii Kingdom. Also after WWII, the US Department of the Interior attempted to incorporate Samoa through Organic Act 4500. Efforts led by Samoan chiefs defeated the act in Congress and led to the creation of the local legislature, the American Samoa Fono, which meets in the village of Fagatogo, often considered the territory’s de facto and de jure capital (while the US recognizes Pago Pago as the official capital). The US Navy governed the territory until 1951, when the administration passed to the US Department of the Interior. The American Samoan constitution was enacted in 1967, and its first elected governor took office in 1978.


More than 89 percent of the population is native Samoan and approximately 95 percent of the land mass is held under the traditional land tenure system.

From the time of the Deeds of Cession to the present, despite increasing Western influences on American Samoa, native American Samoans have expressed a very strong preference for and commitment to the preservation of their traditional matai (chief), aiga (extended family) and communal land system, which provides for social continuity, structure and order. The traditional system is ancient and complex, containing nuances that are not well understood by outsiders. The village and matai system is central to Samoan life, contributing to cultural and social cohesion, traditional values and practice, and cultural and social resilience.

All of the Samoa islands are politically connected today through the fa`amatai chiefly system (including the protocols of the Fono) and through family connections. The fa`amatai and the customs of fa`asamoa (languages and customs) originated with two of the most famous early chiefs of Samoa, Nafuanua and Salamasina, who were both women and related.


The territory’s small developing economy is dependent on the American Samoa Government (ASG), which receives income and capital subsidies from the federal government, and the two fish canneries on Tutuila. These two primary income sources have given rise to a services sector. Sixty-one percent of the population in 1999 was at or below poverty level, and American Samoa has the lowest gross domestic product and highest donor aid per capita among the US-flag Pacific islands. However, its estimated per capita income of $9,332 (male) is almost twice the average for all Pacific island economies. A large proportion of the territory’s work force is from (Western, Independent) Samoa. While they are working in the territory as alien workers by law, they are in reality the same people, by culture, history and family ties.
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