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AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (September 6, 2002 - Cook Islands News/PINA Nius Online)---The growing Cook Islands commercial fishing industry took a big step forward yesterday when Cabinet approved an access agreement with Northern Group Fishing Company.

The five-year agreement gives the locally-based company the right to apply for licenses for six tuna longline vessels and one mothership.

The developers are also committed to financing a local fleet of 20 32-foot fast tuna catchers that will be based in the Northern Group.

The agreement differs from others being granted in that it allows the local company to accept foreign partners with up to 65 percent ownership.

This is due to the estimated NZ$ 10 million (US$ 4,705,000) investment required for such a venture, acting Minister of Marine Resources Sir Geoffrey Henry said.

The company is currently owned by local businessmen Temu Okotai and Tap Pryor.

"I support this proposal because I believe it will dramatically take the Northern Group economy out of the doldrums and into the 21st century," Sir Geoffrey said.

"The potential for development in the north will be quite breathtaking. I see this as a first step to Penrhyn becoming a second major hub of economic development."

Though majority ownership will be overseas, Mr. Okotai will remain chairman and chief executive officer of the venture, which he and Mr. Pryor first publicly proposed in 1999.

"The more we looked at ways to develop the tuna resource, the more certain we were that it would require floating infrastructure up north where most of the fish are," Mr. Okotai said.

"By that I mean a large mothership that can supply the longliners and also both process and store the catch."

The company will recruit and train Cook Islanders to operate the 32-foot fast tuna catchers, selling their catch to the mothership. Operators will be offered lease/purchase agreements so that they can eventually own the vessels.

Mr. Okotai said he could not reveal the identity of the partners until they had been cleared through the Development Investment Board and the joint venture had been finalized.

"However, I can say that the mothership of choice is docked in Seattle and ready to start," he said.

"It is perfect for this purpose. Our proposed partners own a company that makes the smaller vessels, so we are confident of having at least five of the 20 fishing with us in the first year."

The Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone covers nearly two million square kilometers (800,000 square miles).

Secretariat of the Pacific Community experts estimate the annual sustainable tuna yield to be between 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons a year.

"There’s plenty of fish out there for all of us," Mr. Okotai said.

"An important feature of our proposal is that any vessel licensed to fish in the Cook Islands waters can come north and make use of the mothership’s services. It means an instant market for the vessels up there where two thirds of the fish are."

Sir Geoffrey said the Cabinet had taken into account the number of jobs that would be available on the mothership. The agreement called for the company to recruit and train at least one Cook Islander for each longliner.

With at least three crew required to operate the smaller, unlicensed vessels, total employment for Cook Islands crew should exceed 100 in the first year.

"This will expand as more and more Cooks Islanders can be recruited and trained. The company is committed to recruit Cook Islanders both from within and from overseas," Mr. Okotai said.

"It is well known that the Forum Fishing Agency will eventually help to establish regional catch quotas.

"These quotas will reflect not just the sustainable yield of each nation’s EEZ but take into account the catch record of its licensed vessels.

"Therefore, it is vital that the Cook Islands show a growing industry and significant catch results."

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

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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