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Fa’a Samoa: The Samoan Way (Part One)

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 21

This is the first half of a two-part interview with NOAA’s Hideyo Hattori. In this episode, we talk about the many ways that American Samoa is an amazing place, unlike anywhere else in the United States.

The Channel at Rose Atoll, American Samoa

The Muliāva Area of National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa overlays Rose Atoll Marine National Monument and also surrounds a national wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Rose Atoll is the easternmost Samoan island and the southernmost point of the United States and its territories. Here, the deeper channel visible on the ocean side of the reef crest is part of the sanctuary. Image credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency.


HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast. I’m Troy Kitch. Today, we’re taking a virtual journey to the South Pacific. We’re joined by Hideyo Hattori, site liaison for the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation and Coastal Zone Management programs in American Samoa. This episode is the first half of a two-part interview.

Heads up that some of the audio you’re going to hear is a bit spotty. We talked using a chat service on our laptops because American Samoa is about as far away as you can get from the NOAA main campus here in Silver Spring, Maryland.

OK, let’s get started. I’m going to venture a guess here that most of you listening to this may have heard of American Samoa, but you only have a vague idea that it’s somewhere in the Pacific. So let’s start with a quick overview to get you oriented.

American Samoa is in the South Pacific Ocean. It has seven volcanic islands, all fringed with coral reefs. Because of the steep and dramatic slopes of the land, the people who live there make their home on a thin ring of flat land along the coasts. The total land area of the archipelago is slightly larger than Washington DC. And American Samoa is also home to the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, co-managed by NOAA and the American Samoan government.

OK, a few more things you need to know. About 90 percent of the about 55,000 people who live on American Samoa are Polynesian, and Samoan is the main language spoken, but most people also speak English. It’s an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the U.S. … and what that means is complicated. The big picture is that only parts of the U.S. Constitution apply to American Samoans. People who are born here are nationals but not citizens of the U.S.. That means they can live anywhere in the nation, but they can’t vote in federal elections.

Did I mention it’s quite remote? Here’s Hideyo.

Hideyo Hattori atop a mountain in American Samoa

Meet Hideyo Hattori, Site Liaison, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) and NOAA Coastal Zone Management Program (CZMP)

HIDEYO HATTORI: Any time you’re leaving American Samoa, you can only take a short twenty-five minute propellor flight to Western Samoa, so moving across the archipelago to the independent country of Samoa, or flying Northeast to Honolulu it’s a five-hour flight. And we only have two flights a week. So we’re pretty isolated. You know, it’s not the easiest place to travel. A lot of times, we have to go way out of our way to go to a neighboring island because of the limitation on transport.

HOST: Hideyo has lived and worked in American Samoa for about eight years, and he lived in other remote places in the South Pacific for twelve years before that. When he’s not working, you can probably find him in the ocean surfing, diving, and snorkeling. His job involves working with many different federal agencies and local island partners to help keep coral reefs and coastal areas healthy. That’s another important thing to know about American Samoa: the waters around the islands are fringed with amazing coral reef ecosystems, home to what researchers believe may be the greatest diversity of marine life anywhere in the U.S. And while many different partners work together there to help protect the corals that surround the islands, Hideyo said that it all begins and ends with the community villages.

HIDEYO HATTORI: Everyone is associated with a village, and 90 percent of land in American Samao is village owned and governed through village and familal organizations. And in that sense, every family has land that they can live on. They can have their plantation on. And if it’s a coastal village, a reef that they can fish on. And that really preserves the cultural history and history of the American Samoan people.

HOST: The way that people in American Samoa govern their island is centered around tradition, culture, and family — Hideyo says it’s at the heart of what makes American Samoa so special. It called Fa’a Samoa, or the Samoan Way. It extends to all areas of life, even encompassing how the ocean and land is managed.

HIDEYO HATTORI: Marine resources are still universally considered to be an important part of Fa’a Samoa, or the Samoan Way. And so, to this day, villages control rights of access to nearshore marine resources through customary marine tenure systems, and in this system village councils govern coastal resources and access to them. And the same can be said about the land tenure system, which has significant implications for cultural preservation and then influences the development on the island. I would say land is the most important tangible asset for American Samoans, and it’s traditionally been a critical aspect of the family organization and identity. American Samoans, when they’re born here, they’re born into land that they can build a house on, they’re born into land they can have their plantation on. And the vast majority of village-based land is land that is owned and managed by families within the village system and cannot be bought or sold.

HOST: Hideyo said it’s a unique place to work on coral conservation and coastal resource issues because it’s very clear how the island ecosystem is so closely tied to those who live there. He said it’s much less abstract and more tangible from other regions in the U.S. with corals — in Florida, for instance — where there are so many different communities, complex watersheds, and so many different pressures on coral reefs. In American Samoa, coral reefs are a core part of everyday life.

HIDEYO HATTORI: It’s impossible to go through day-to-day life in American Samoa without seeing the coast. Without seeing the waves cresting on our reef flats, way out in the distance, that protect our shorelines from erosion. Protect our critical infrastructure from erosion. Living in American Samoa, a majority of the villages are along the seashore, and so whether you’re going to work or going to your plantation on the farm, you’re always going to be intertwined the coral reef ecosystem. You see it all the time. And so it’s nearly impossible to be completely removed from the coral reef ecosystem.

HOST: When it comes to Hideyo’s job of working with local communities to find ways to better conserve corals and coastal areas, he said it’s not about imposing top-down regulations from the federal government. Rather, it’s a bottom-up approach led by the villages.

HIDEYO HATTORI: And as someone who’s working here to pursue coral reef conservation and coastal resource management needs, you really have to work with people on the ground on bottom-up approaches, where you need to gain the trust of the villagers, and focus on enabling them to meet their conservation goals. All of the coastal resources are managed by the locals at the village level. When you work with them, they see the benefits of the regulations in that everybody has to chip in for the greater good. And that translates really well in a Samoan village-based community where people understand that the greater good is something we should all contribute towards. The individual is less emphasized in American Samoa compared to the village organizations and the family organizations. Everybody works together for the family and the village for the benefit of the greater good.

A coral head inside the protected lagoon at Rose Atoll. This protected area makes a great habitat for small fish to grow. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Louise Giuseffi)

HOST: That was Hideyo Hattori, site liaison for the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and Coastal Zone Management Program in American Samoa. We hope you enjoyed the first half one of our two-part special. In the next episode, we’ll be taking a closer look at Hideyo’s work helping to conserve the coral reef ecosystems that fringe the American Samoan islands.

This is the NOAA Ocean podcast. Head to our website at oceanservice.noaa.gov for show notes for this episode. And we hope you subscribe to our podcast in your podcast player of choice — and leave us a review on iTunes.

A coral head inside the protected lagoon at Rose Atoll.
Did you know?

The National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa is one of 14 federally designated underwater areas protected by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Of all the areas in the National Marine Sanctuary System, the American Samoa sanctuary is the most remote, is the only true tropical reef, and is thought to support the greatest diversity of marine life.

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