Cook Islands Ministry Pushing For Support Of Purse Sein Agreement

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

MMR campaign looks to ‘correct misinformation’ about EU deal

By Florence Syme-Buchanan

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Jan. 7, 2016) – The Ministry of Marine Resources is set to embark on a spending spree to woo support from fishermen, especially in the northern group, for a purse seining agreement with the European Union.

A sum of $300,000 [US$200,000] has been set aside for the exercise. It will include MMR visits to the Pae Tokerau to give presentations on the purse seine fishery and supposedly "…correct some misinformation" that the ministry believes exists amongst the northern group people.

Each of the five northern islands will also get a "gift" of $10,000 [US$6,660] that will be given to fishing clubs which will also decide how it is spent.

This information is revealed in a leaked email from MMR boss Ben Ponia to senior staff and the country’s fishing club presidents.

Writes Ponia: "We will leave it to each island and their fishing clubs to propose how to use their allocation of monies noting that it must spent before the end of June 2016. Please write back to MMR to discuss how you wish for your portion to be allocated."

The email also reveals exactly how the fuel subsidy for northern group fishermen that Ponia has been advocating for at least two years will be funded hasn’t been determined yet. Ponia tells email recipients that hopes are pinned on the fuel subsidy being paid through a purse seining partnership with the EU.

This indicates that despite widespread national opposition to the government signing an agreement with the EU that will allow Spain to fish here, the agreement will proceed.

"We (are) hoping to target the EU purse seine fishery partnership as a source of funds to trial a fuel subsidy," Ponia writes.

Ponia says in his email that determining fuel allocation could be linked to the MMR catch logsheets which be suggests could be a system that could be quite simple to manage.

"But we will also have to draft a policy on who should be entitled to a fuel subsidy and what percentage of fuel would be subsidised."

It is apparent that winning the support of the country’s fishermen against strong anti purse seining sentiment is important enough to the government to bump up the fisheries POBOC (payment of behalf of the Crown) from $200,000 to $300,000

The increase will also make possible small grants for fishermen, said Ponia.

MMR will be requesting applications for small grants shortly. According to Ponia there will be an end of February deadline to enable applications to be processed before the end of June this year.

"We intend to use the same guidelines for grants as in previous years but will also check applications against catch log sheets and have the local fishery officer and club president to verify that the applicant has a bone-fide interest."

Ponia states clearly that the Pae Tokerau has been singled out to get the lion’s share of the POBOC because money from fisheries licenses is generated by fishing taking place up north.

The Cook Islands Fishing Association is to also get a New Year gift of $100,000 to spend as it wishes amongst the country’s 300 or so fishermen.

Ponia disclosed that MMR intends to use $50,000 under the POBOC for sea safety equipment. He said this will be a "top-up" for the $50,000 worth of sea safety equipment recently acquired under the NZAID programme.

The NZAID equipment included safety equipment in 17 grab bags for fishing clubs and offices. Ponia did not explain which offices stood to benefit from the grab bags.

A further 110 electronic LED distress flares and 120 compasses will be directly distributed by MMR to active fishermen registered on the log sheet database.

Deputy Opposition leader Tamaiva Tuavera says the MMR strategy is blatant politicking and an attempt by the government to bribe support from the northern islands for a highly unpopular plan to sign up with the EU to purse seine here.

"I see the politics of it clearly...the people of the southern group have put in a petition to stop purse seining in our waters."

Tuavera says the green light from northern islanders is critical to the government given that "they own that part of the ocean."

The Ngatangiia MP says the government is making it clear that despite what people want, the government will proceed with issuing Spain purse seining licenses ‘at all costs’.

With talk that there could be a snap election in a few months’ time, Tuavera says the gifts of money to the fishing association and northern islands is an obvious vote sweetener.

He says southern group MPs should be up in arms over the favouritism by the government of the northern islands as there are fishermen all over the country.

"Our fisherman in the southern group are very capable of fishing in their own waters and the $10,000 is being deliberately given to the northern group to secure purse seining support".

The distribution of the fisheries POBOC will include the gift of $100,000 to the Cook Islands Fishing Association; small grant funds for local fishermen - $100,000; aea safety program - $50,000; Pae Tokerau - $50,000 ($10,000 donated to each islands’ fishing club)total $300,000.

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