Strange Vessel Sightings Unsettle American Samoa

Ta'u Island (file image courtesy Dept. of the Interior)

Published May 1, 2017 9:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

American Samoa is a quiet place, an American territory in the South Pacific with seven islands, 60,000 inhabitants and a tuna canning factory. The main island of Tutuila has as many as 10 stop signs, "depending on how many are actually standing," according to American Samoa Tourism. Rarely if ever does its name come up in discussions of maritime security – but on Monday, it gained a bit of international attention after local residents spotted two unidentified vessels dispatching boats to the shores of Ta'u.

American Samoa's Director of Homeland Security, Samana Semo Veavea, told Radio New Zealand that witnesses reported two large vessels out at sea and two small boats heading to shore on the island of Ta’u late on April 21. Village leader Ale Filoialii gave additional details to news outlet Talanei: he reported that a couple had been out fishing for shellfish and had seen a small boat landing near their village. Separately, another small boat was spotted nearby. Filoialii said that a villager fired a gun in the air to drive off the intruders, and the small boats quickly took off.  

The Coast Guard reviewed satellite AIS data and found three Chinese fishing vessels in the vicinity at the time of the sightings – but not within sight of shore. Michael Field, a writer who specializes in illegal fishing in the South Pacific, told Samoa News that he could not replicate the Coast Guard's findings based on publicly available satellite AIS data.

Veavea says that eyewitness accounts continue to come in, with varying degrees of consistency. "What we're getting from the public is that 'we saw this stuff,' but no one can say they have a photograph of what it is," Veavea told local Talanei News. "I don't want to get the people worried about what's out there." Veavea said that he would dispatch a joint team of homeland security, Coast Guard and police agents to Ta'u to investigate.