Cook Islands Moves To Establish Bigeye Tuna Fishery

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Total allowable catch to be set based on exploratory program

By Emmanuel Samoglou

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, April 7, 2014) – The Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) is moving forward in its attempts to establish a bigeye tuna fishery in the Cook Islands.

In 2012, the Cook Islands launched a bigeye tuna fishing exploratory programme and 2000 tonnes of the fish was caught by in the northern Cook Islands by a fleet of Chinese longliners, earning the Government $800,000 [US694,000] in license revenue.

Originally a three-year programme, the programme was cancelled after the first year by former MMR Minister Teina Bishop.

MMR Secretary Ben Ponia said the ministry is now seeking to establish a total allowable catch (TAC) using data gathered during the one-year exploratory programme and to designate the fishery under government regulations.

Last month, the ministry announced it is seeking to establish a quota management system to manage the fishery.

Bigeye tuna is known as a high quality, sashimi-grade fish that commands high prices in markets worldwide.

MMR’s plans hit a roadblock this week when a vessel owned by Huanan – a subsidiary of Luen Thai Fishing Venture – was unable to offload 20 tonnes of super frozen (-50 degrees C) bigeye and yellow fin tuna due to a lack of reefers (refrigerated containers) on the island.

"I believe they have only discharged five ... containers, but that they were hoping to discharge nine containers but couldn’t source enough on the island," said MMR secretary Ben Ponia.

As a result, the company had to send the vessel to Pago Pago in American Samoa to offload the remainder of the catch.

Ponia said the availability of reefers was an issue that had been previously flagged, and believes the company is currently looking at sourcing 10 additional units to avoid the problem in the future.

MMR estimates that it costs a fishing vessel an additional $60,000 dollars to offload its catch in Rarotonga as opposed to Pago Pago - which it says is the closest port to the nation’s fishing grounds in the north.

Ponia said the beginning of offloading of super frozen tunas will be a precursor towards the establishment of a proposed loining facility in Rarotonga.

In 2014, Huanan’s fleet will be increasing the amount of offloading of super frozen bigeye which will allow the company "... to assess the logistics and costs of establishing a super frozen processing facility on Rarotonga."

"During each vessel offloading, the company injects significant money into the economy by purchasing diesel fuel, bait, paying port charges, provisioning..." said Ponia. "High valued products such as sashimi grade super frozen tuna are one of the most viable options to offset the relatively high costs of business in Rarotonga."

"The modern fuel efficient Chinese mini-longliner with its super freezing capacity is changing the dynamics of the longline fishery.

These vessels are enabling the Cook Islands local economy to participate and benefit from its offshore tuna fishery rather than having to rely only on revenue generated from fishing licenses," he said.

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