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American Samoa Archipelago: History of the Fisheries

American Samoan dependence on fishing goes back about 3,500 years when people first inhabited the Samoan archipelago. When distributed, fish and other resources move through a complex and culturally embedded exchange system that supports the food needs of aiga (extended family) as well as the status of both matai (chiefs) and village ministers.

As in other parts of Polynesia, reef and lagoon fishing have been widely practiced in American Samoa for many centuries, and some of the highest reef yields recorded globally were from subsistence fishing around Tutuila.

Traditional harvest of deepwater bottomfish, prior to Western contact, included the use of canoes, hand-woven sennit lines with pearl shell hooks and stone sinkers. Cultural distribution included chiefs, chiefs’ wives and young untitled men. Today, it also includes pastors. One jack, ulua malauli, was reserved only for chiefly and council consumption with different parts of the fish (ceremonial division) reserved for different chiefs.

By the 1950s, many small bottomfish operations were equipped with outboard engines, steel hooks and linen and monofilament fishing lines. In the early 1970s, the commercial bottomfish fishery began developing supported by a government-subsidized program that provided local fishermen with gasoline and 23 diesel powered 24–foot wooden dories capable of fishing in offshore waters. By 1980, mechanical problems and other difficulties reduced the fleet to one vessel.

In the early 1980s, the fleet size recovered when local boat builders began constructing the inexpensive but seaworthy 28-foot alia fishing catamaran, designed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. This, along with a government-subsidized project to export deep-water snapper to Hawaii, caused another notable increase in bottomfish landings. Between 1982 and 1988, the bottomfish fishery peaked at almost 50 vessels landing over 100,000 pounds annually. Bottomfish accounted for as much as half of the total catch of the local commercial fishery.

Skipjack tuna, known locally as atu, is another important species both nutritionally and culturally. The methods and equipment for catching skipjack have changed, but the fish brought to shore continue to be distributed within Samoan villages according to age-old ceremonial traditions. Beginning in 1988, longlining for pelagic species, such as tuna, overtook bottomfish fishing as American Samoa’s main commercial fishery. For more on the history of the pelagic fishery, click here.