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Protected Species – American Samoa

Protected species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and known to occur in waters around American Samoa include green, hawksbill, leatherback and olive ridley sea turtles; humpback and sperm whales; Newell’s shearwaters and the bristle-thighed curlew. Blue whales, fin whales and sei whales are known to occur in the Western Pacific Region but have not been observed around American Samoa. Other marine mammals known to occur include several types of dolphins and whales; other seabirds known to occur include shearwaters, petrels, boobies, tropicbirds and other species.

AS green turtleThe National Marine Fisheries Service, following consultations under section 7 of the ESA, has determined that the bottomfish, crustaceans, coral reef and precious coral fisheries in the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters around the American Samoa Archipelago will not adversely affect any ESA-listed species or critical habitat.

NMFS has also concluded that the commercial fisheries in the American Samoa Archipelago will not affect marine mammals in any manner not considered or authorized under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Tough federal and territorial laws exist in American Samoa to protect turtles and their eggs. Depending on the circumstances, there is a $500 to $250,000 penalty and up to one year in jail, for killing a turtle or importing any turtle product into the Territory (shells, stuffed turtles, turtle combs, etc.). Fortunately few turtles seem to be taken in American Samoa, possibly due to outreach programs that inform children and villagers about the endangered status of the turtles.

In Samoan folklore, sea turtles were believed to have the power to save fishermen who were lost at sea by bringing them safely to shore. The Samoan word for sea turtle, “I’a sa,” translates literally to “sacred fish”, presumably because of this ability. Samoans have traditionally harvested sea turtles for food, and the shell was often made into bracelets, combs, fishing hooks, and also was used in the headpiece worn by a princess during important dance ceremonies. Turtles were incorporated into Samoan songs and art, and there are turtle petroglyphs (rock carvings) in Faga’itua and Leone. In addition, legends about turtles include the story of the Turtle and Shark that appear in the sea at Vaitogi when villagers sing a special song. Two turtle species, the green and hawksbill, are the most frequently found turtles in waters around American Samoa.

Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas)

Green sea turtles are known in Samoan as laumei ena`ena and fonu. The life cycle of the green sea turtle involves a series of long-distance migrations back and forth between their feeding and nesting areas. In American Samoa, their only known nesting area is at Rose Atoll. When they finish laying their eggs there, the green turtles leave Rose Atoll and migrate to their feeding grounds somewhere else in the South Pacific. After several years, the turtles will return to Rose Atoll to nest again. Every turtle returns to the same nesting and feeding areas throughout its life, but that does not necessarily mean that all turtles nesting at Rose Atoll will migrate to exactly the same feeding area. A tagging study, conducted in the mid-1990s tracked eight tagged green sea turtles by satellite telemetry from their nesting sites at Rose Atoll to Fiji. Another turtle tagged at Rose Atoll was found dead in Vanuatu, and another was tracked heading east towards French Polynesia near Tahiti.

Hawksbill Sea Turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata)

Hawksbill turtles are known in Samoan as laumei uga. They are most commonly found at Tutuila and the Manu’a Islands, and are also known to nest at Rose Atoll and Swains Island. Hawksbills are solitary nesters and are occasionally poisonous — in the late 1950s, people in Aunu’u got very sick after eating one.

Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) 

In 1993, the crew of an American Samoa government vessel engaged in experimental longline fishing, pulled up a small freshly dead leatherback turtle about 5.6 kilometers south of Swains Island. This was the first leatherback turtle seen by the vessel’s captain in 32 years of fishing in the waters of American Samoa. The nearest known leatherback nesting area to the Samoan archipelago is the Solomon Islands.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea)

Olive ridley turtles are uncommon in American Samoa, although there have been at least three sightings. A necropsy of one recovered dead olive ridley found that it was injured by a shark, and may have recently laid eggs, indicating that there may be a nesting beach in American Samoa.

Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) 

The humpback whale is known in Samoan as tafola or i`a manu. In Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, southern humpback whales mate and calve from June through September. Humpbacks arrive in American Samoa from the south as early as July and stay until as late as December; however, they are most common around Samoa during September and October. They occur in small groups of adults or in mother-calf pairs. Humpback whales have been sighted around all seven of the islands in the Territory of American Samoa. The appearance of humpbacks around American Samoa is an important segment of their migration up and down the South Pacific Ocean. During the warm months in the southern hemisphere, they feed in the rich waters of Antarctica, located 3,200 miles to the south. When Antarctic’s winter sets in they migrate northward, with some going towards Australia and others migrating towards Tonga. Apparently most of this latter group remains near Tonga, but at least some migrate onward to Samoa. While in warmer waters they mate and give birth to their young. They do not feed while in warm south Pacific waters — only when they return to the Antarctic do they resume feeding.

Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus) 

Sperm whales are found in tropical to polar waters throughout the world. They are among the most abundant large cetaceans in the region. Historical observations of sperm whales around Samoa occurred in all months except February and March. Sperm whales are occasionally seen in the Fagatele Bay Sanctuary as well.

Other marine mammals 

Common Name

Scientific Name

Common Name

Scientific Name

Blainsville beaked whale

Mesoplodon densirostris

Melon-headed whale

Peponocephala electra

Bottlenose dolphin

Tursiops truncatus

Minke whale

Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Bryde’s whale

Balaenoptera edeni

Pacific white-sided dolphin

Lagenorhynchus obliquidens

Common dolphin

Delphinus delphis

Pygmy killer whale

Feresa attenuata

Cuvier’s beaked whale

Ziphius cavirostris

Pygmy sperm whale

Kogia breviceps

Dall’s porpoise

Phocoenoides dalli

Risso’s dolphin

Grampus griseus

Dwarf sperm whale

Kogia simus

Rough-toothed dolphin

Steno bredanensis

False killer whale

Pseudorca crassidens

Short-finned pilot whale

Globicephala macrorhynchus

Fraser’s dolphin

Lagenodelphis hosei

Spinner dolphin

Stenella longirostris

Killer whale

Orcinus orca

Spotted dolphin

Stenella attenuata

Longman’s beaked whale

Indopacetus pacificus

Striped dolphin

Stenella coeruleoalba

Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis) 

The bristle-thighed curlew is a migratory seabird that resides on Rose Atoll in American Samoa.

Newell’s Shearwater (Puffinus auricularis)

The Newell’s shearwater is known in Samoan as ta`i`o and has been identified as a ‘visitor’ to Tutuila. Shearwaters are most active in the day and skim the ocean surface while foraging. Shearwaters also tend to be gregarious at sea, and the Newell’s shearwater is known to occasionally follow ships. Shearwaters feed by surface seizing and pursuit plunging. Often shearwaters will dip their heads under the water to sight their prey before submerging. Shearwaters are believed to breed only in Hawaii.

Other Seabirds 

Residents (i.e. breeding)

Wedge-tailed shearwater Puffinus pacificus
Audubon’s shearwater Puffinus lherminieri
Christmas shearwater Puffinus nativitatis
Tahiti petrel Pseudobulweria rostrata
Herald petrel Pterodroma heraldica
Collared petrel Pterodroma brevipes
Red-footed booby Sula Sula
Brown booby Sula leucogaster
Masked booby Sula dactylatra
White-tailed tropicbird Phaethon lepturus
Red-tailed tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda
Great frigatebird Fregata minor
Lesser frigatebird Fregata ariel
Sooty tern Sterna fuscata
Brown noddy Anous stolidus
Black noddy Anous minutus
Blue-gray noddy Procelsterna cerulea
Common fairy-tern (white tern) Gygis alba

Visitors/vagrants:

Short-tailed shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris
Mottled petrel Pterodroma inexpectata
Phoenix petrel Pterodroma alba
White-bellied storm petrel Fregetta grallaria
Polynesian storm petrel Nesofregetta fuliginosa
Laughing gull Larus atricilla
Black-naped tern Sterna sumatrana