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Says 17 licenses for tuna, swordfish could ‘devastate’ catch

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Jan. 3, 2012) – A Cook Islands fishing company has called on Greenpeace to help them fight for survival, after Cook Islands government issued fishing licenses to 17 foreign vessels.

The Taiwanese fishing boats will target tuna and swordfish over the next 3 years.

But Greenpeace says the decision will have devastating effects.

Presenter: Melanie Arnost

Speaker: Tapi Taio, Cooks fisherman; Ben Ponia, Cooks Ministry of Marine Resources; Lagi Toribau, Greenpeace Pacific Ocean's team leader

ARNOST: Local fisherman Tapi Taio says his company, Taio Marine, are the pioneers of long-line fishing in Cook Islands. But after years of fishing in Rarotongan waters the future of his business looks very bleak.

TAIO: I can’t see a future for us. We are the owners of this ocean, we are part of it, and we have been sold cheaply for a small amount of money.

ARNOST: Cook Islands government has approved the granting of 17 fishing licenses for Taiwanese vessels to explore local waters for tuna and swordfish.

The deal with Taiwan will earn the government 600,000 U.S. dollars a year.

But Mr. Taio says even before the licenses were issued, Rarotonga fishermen were already complaining about decreased catches.

Now he's sure local businesses won't survive.

TAIO: We are very, very disappointed with what the government is gone through. They're gonna clean up our ocean, that’s how I see it, and we won't have anything left very soon.

ARNOST: Secretary for Cook Islands Ministry for Marine Resources, Ben Ponia, says the government will monitor the vessels closely.

PONIA: The key condition is we've set up a monitoring program so that we get weekly reports coming through on the activities, catches and what not. And we have full access to the satellite tracking system so we know whereabouts they are catching these fish.

We are also putting a limit on a 48 nautical mile exclusion zone around each island so that they don't come too close to shore.

ARNOST: He says the licenses are part of a long term plan to develop the fishing of Cook Island's big-eye tuna stock... a species that is recognized by environmental organizations as overfished.

[PIR editor’s note: US$636,809 was spent by Chinese fisheries for a total of 17 licenses to fish in Cook Islands' waters. Each vessel is given a 12-month period to conduct fishing activities that may be extended on a yearly basis during the three-year program. The Cook Islands government stands to make nearly US$2 million from the deal. Cook Islands government representatives say Chinese vessels will be subject to strict surveillance and catch regulations for big-eye tuna and swordfish, the main stocks to be fished through long-line ships.]

Fisherman Tapi Taio has called on environmental campaigners Greenpeace to come in and help local fishing companies.

TAIO: You know they have been ah campaigning about killing the whales and killing the sharks and all that. So my question is... where are they? Why don’t they come in the party and support us?

ARNOST: But the Greenpeace Pacific Oceans Team Leader Lagi Toribau says his organization has been watching the situation closely.

TORIBAU: Recently we have our ship the Esperanza out in the Pacific. We also passed through the Cook Islands. For three months we were out at sea and one of our major findings was that the level of bycatch, particularly sharks and you know the presence of shark-finning, it was something that was really common on most of the long-line vessels that we came across. And it's really hard to enforce because a lot of these vessels they can stay out at sea for months and years and there's no way to know how much they are actually taking out.

ARNOST: He says countries around the Pacific, including Cook Islands, are being taken advantage of by foreign fishing vessels.

TORIBAU: A lot of people don't actually realize that this industry is worth over 4 billion US dollars and the Pacific Island government total, that's the 17 Pacific Island countries that share this unique stock, they only get 5 to 6 percent of the revenue. Not only are these countries coming to fish in our waters, they're taking 95 percent of the profit with them.

ARNOST: Mr Toribau says its Pacific Islanders and coastal communities that will suffer.

TORIBAU: If we don't sustain these fish in the long term, we're going to see a change in our fishing style. We're gonna see a change in the behavior of fish. We're gonna see a change in our diet and I, for one, I would like to see my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, for them to be able to also consume the fish that our forefathers have left here for us.

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