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Exploratory program to raise $1.8 million over 3 years

By Rosie Manins RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Dec. 10, 2011) – The Cook Islands cabinet has approved the issuing of another seven foreign fishing licenses for governments exploratory fishing program targeting tuna and swordfish over the next three years.

Already, cabinet has approved the granting of 17 fishing licenses for Taiwanese vessels to operate in Cook Islands waters as part of the program.

In parliament yesterday, marine resources minister Teina Bishop explained that cabinet has approved the issuing of up to 24 licenses for foreign vessels to fish locally.

They include 10 licenses for longline vessels to target big-eye tuna, 10 licenses for longline vessels to target swordfish, and four licenses for purse seine vessels.

"But we haven’t gone down the purse seining line yet. So out of the 20 long line licenses for swordfish and big eye we’ve only issued so far 17."

Bishop’s comments came in response to a question from opposition MP Tangata Vavia, who wanted to know whether the approval of licenses is a cabinet initiative, or one driven by the minister or Ministry of Marine Resources.

"It’s just that it’s still a little murky whether it’s the right policy being put in place because people are still questioning this policy."

Bishop says the exploratory fishing program is a good one, which will net government a significant amount of revenue through licenses.

The 17 Taiwanese vessels already licensed will generate NZ$810,000 [US$611,000] in government revenue each year a total of NZ$2.4 million [US$1.8 million] over the three years of the project.

This exploratory program has been approved by the Ministry of Marine Resources in consultation with the FFA (Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency) and has been approved by cabinet.

Bishop says in addition to the revenue generated through the program, it will also see foreign fishing vessels deliver new floats and rope to Manihiki for development of the islands pearl farming industry.

"Together with this relationship, we are also looking at establishing a relationship with a Shanghai University to have our students go there and their postgraduate students come to Manihiki to help with our pearl farming industry."

[PIR editor’s note: Bishop spent three weeks on tour in China on business matters, reporting in November that an agreement between the Cook Islands and China over fisheries-related activities was being finalized. After talks had concluded, the government reported the Chinese Fishing association held 17 of 20 exploratory licenses to seek big-eye tuna and swordfish, which have been given for a net return of US$612,000 yearly over three years, which is the term of the license.]

Bishop says the bill being debated in parliament to enable better definition of Cook Islands territorial borders and its exclusive economic zone is also important to the country’s fishing industry, because there are millions of dollars in fines to be collected through prosecution of illegal fishing activity.

He made an effort to emphasize that government has not embarked on purse seine fishing in Cook Islands waters yet.

Vavia asked a subsequent question, citing the concern among fishers nationwide of reduced catch rates.

"Even before the licenses were issued, our fishermen here in Rarotonga and in the outer islands have aired their views they are getting less catch. Even fishermen in Mitiaro are saying they’re getting less catch in their fishing grounds, and I’ve got no doubt other islands could say almost the same thing," Bishop said.

[PIR editor’s note: The Northern Cook Islands Fishing Company was found to have sold 16 commercial fishing licenses to Taiwanese companies, which under Marine Resource legislation in the Cook Islands is unlawful. Reports also alleged that the company paid significantly less than the average selling price of US$30,000-$40,000 per license before selling them. The investigation into the illegal selling of fishing licenses has since prompted national legislation to ensure that the country’s "national resource" of fish stocks will not be exploited.]

Vavia asked Bishop whether government has properly consulted with fishers and communities throughout the country in respect of its exploratory fishing program.

"This may not be a scientific result but it will certainly give government a fair idea of what our fishermen are experiencing in their fishing grounds. I respect that there is, as you say, $800,000 or more earned per year on these licenses, but my concern is the islands are experiencing shortages of fish and do we really need to go outside of that fact to earn $2.4 million in three years?"

Vavia also cited other Pacific nations which are closing their waters to foreign fishing vessels.

Bishop confirms government has consulted with people on Rarotonga and Aitutaki in respect of its exploratory fishing program, on command by cabinet.

"During that consultation there was no problem with long lining everybody’s concern was about purse seine fishing and that’s why we’ve never embarked on purse seine fishing in this exercise."

Bishop says big eye lines are set about 200 meters below sea level where domestic fishermen do not reach and they are all set in the north at about 15 degrees.

Swordfish congregate in southern waters below the Cook Islands, he says.

Government is committed to giving national fishing associations $10,000 of every license issued to foreign vessels, through a development fund.

Bishop says so far this year $90,000 has been channeled through the fund to the Cook Islands Fishing Association, which has distributed the money to subsidiary groups throughout the country.

"The reason is because we found out during the consultation that the real problem of the fishermen is not the lack of fish but the cost of fishing the cost of fuel and fishing equipment and that’s why we are allocating that amount to help with fishing associations."

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