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By Alex Sword

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (November 28, 2000 - Cook Islands News)---The government has established a task force to working on short and long term measures to deal with the urgent situation concerning pearl oysters dying in Manihiki Lagoon.

Marine Resources Minister Dr. Robert Woonton said a meeting with the Prime Minister, Dr. Terepai Maoate, and Marine Resources Under Secretary Dr. Pupuke Robati yesterday resolved that he (Woonton) would be the task force chairman. Other members include Financial Secretary Kevin Carr, Secretary of Marine Resources Navy Epati and the PM’s Office Chief of Staff/Aid Official Eddie Drollett in consultation with various other people.

Woonton said the task force would be meeting soon to work out its terms of reference.

The minister, together with Dr. Robati, were among those who flew up to Manihiki and other northern atolls from Rarotonga last Friday and returned during the weekend.

Minister Woonton said so far it has been confirmed that pearl oysters are dying for a number of reasons, including a rise in the lagoon temperature and an over-crowding of oysters.

It appears that a strand of the vibriosis organism, which is naturally in the lagoon, have under those conditions flourished and affected the oysters, he explained, particularly in the Tukao Bay area where there are a large number of small and large farms.

The minister said his ministry is still cross-checking tests of oyster samples sent to New Zealand with other overseas expert sources to be more certain about the vibriosis organism.

The Marine Resources Ministry, together with the Manihiki Island Council, is ensuring that management controls are in place.

Minister Woonton says marine officer Ian Bertram has already taken steps in Manihiki to move oysters into deeper waters and there are signs of the oysters recovering in some parts of the lagoon.

He explained that the government is very concerned with what is happening, and with the threat posed to one of this country’s top economic sectors, the pearl industry, with regard to the affects on the farms and in the wider economy.

Woonton said the government is doing all it can to help with the situation.

The minister said Marine Resources is helping farmers remove excess pearl oysters out of Manihiki Lagoon to allow others to survive.

The government will also find markets for pearls shells removed from the lagoon, and may even buy the shells from the farmers.

As for an estimate of the damage caused so far to the pearl industry, Minister Woonton said it was too early to say at this stage.

He said calm has been restored among pearl farmers on Manihiki.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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