- Associated Press - Thursday, October 13, 2016

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (AP) - One of the two tuna canning companies operating in American Samoa announced Thursday it plans to suspend production in December.

In a statement, Bellevue, Washington-based Tri Marine says it will end production indefinitely at its Samoa Tuna Processors cannery plant.

Tri Marine told its 800 employees of the plan Thursday. The company didn’t specify how many will be affected.

American Samoa does not have labor unions, and most employees are paid minimum wage. The company said economic difficulties spurred the decision.

“The challenging economics of canning tuna in American Samoa combined with external factors facing STP make Tri Marine?s private-label focused business model for operating the plant economically unsustainable,” the company said in a statement. The company is considering alternatives for the plant, including an outright sale. The company pumped $70 million into the plant before it opened in January 2015.

“This is an incredibly difficult decision and one we make with a great deal of reluctance,” said Tri Marine Chief Executive Officer Renato Curto in a statement. “Our hearts go out to STP’s employees, suppliers, service providers and everyone else who depends on STP’s operations.”

In 2014, Tri Marine’s cannery plant was expected to employ some 1,500 workers at their seaside plant in the village of Atu’u. American Samoa’s economy is dependent on the tuna cannery industry.

“We are $70 million confident of our investment in the cannery project,” Tri Marine Chief Executive Officer Renato Curto said in 2014.

“Ultimately, our decision to invest came down to our belief that tuna is a good, nutritious product, that tuna stocks can be sustainably managed for the long-term and that processing in the islands is the right thing to do,” he said.

Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga met Wednesday with Tri Marine chief operation officer Joe Hamby, who informed the governor that the “global unfavorable economic environment for the fishing industry and changing dynamics of its business prompted the decision to stop its current financial hemorrhaging,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.

When the plant opened, outgoing chamber of commerce chairman Lewis Wolman said that besides the large workforce, the cannery would have direct impacts like buying products from local vendors and supporting the shipping industry. But it would also have significant indirect impacts, such as the purchases made by workers from their paychecks.

In addition to the cannery, Tri Marine’s Samoa Tuna Processor Inc., was able to receive fish directly from the fishing boats.

“Though we are suspending canning operations, Tri Marine will continue to operate STP as a logistics hub for the Tri Marine Group. Unfortunately, this will mean a much reduced labor force,” Curto said Thursday.

“Due to a complex series of factors, including a long history of poorly thought out and misguided government policies, we find ourselves at a crossroads,” American Samoa delegate to the U.S. House of Representative Aumua Amata Radewagen said in a statement Thursday.

“It was my top priority during my first term in Congress to begin reversing those policies, and I will continue that mission in the hopes that the island’s remaining cannery can prosper,” she said.

Curto said the company has invested well over $200 million in American Samoa between its fleet and facilities.

SunKist also operates a tuna cannery in American Samoa, but the plant has been temporarily out of operation for the past week because of a lack of fish.

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