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AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (October 1, 2001 – Cook Islands News)---Marine Resources Minister Dr. Robert Woonton has initiated a task force that will form strategies to develop and protect the country’s third biggest revenue earner -- the pearl industry.

It will include industry stakeholders from all levels and will be spearheaded by the Development Investment Board.

The task force will address issues such as possible new legislation to give the pearl industry greater protection, maintaining and controlling quality and international marketing strategies.

Minister Woonton says pearl farmers and sellers here may be facing tough times in the future following the recent tragic events in the United States which will have worldwide repercussions.

"It’s vital that we mobilize a capable, energetic, creative team of people who can work together, iron out the many issues that face our pearl industry and get people in the industry working cohesively," says Dr. Woonton.

A budget of NZ$ 100,000 (US$ 40,908) has been set aside by government for the task force to undertake all its responsibilities.

Dr. Woonton says spending that kind of money on developing and safeguarding an industry that earns the country NZ$ 19.9 million (US$ 8,140,692) in exports alone is well justified. He says there is concern over the large amount of quality pearls that are "disappearing overseas," leaving lesser grade pearls for sale.

"That’s eroding revenue that the Cook Islands could be earning," Dr. Woonton says.

He says if those top pearls remained here, the annual earnings from pearl exports would increase dramatically.

It’s generally felt that the 40 percent of all seeded pearls from each harvest charged by foreign pearl technicians is largely to blame for top quality pearls moving out of the country.

In August, the DIB announced new moves to train Cook Islanders as pearl technicians after complaints from farmers that foreign technicians’ fees were excessive.

The DIB said it would liaise with the Chinese Embassy in Wellington to identify experts teaching in institutions in China who can come to the Cook Islands and train local people.

When the announcement was made, DIB marketing and investment promotions officer Mona Mato said to give the local pearl industry greater protection, farmers wanted government to impose higher duties on the importation of Tahitian black pearls and imitation pearls.

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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