Cooks Government Ramps Up Fishery Public Relations Push

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

Ministry of Marine Resources looks to sell purse seine deal to public

By Florence Syme-Buchanan

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Jan. 26, 2016) – As international environmental agencies report that world fish stocks are in alarming decline and could be exhausted by 2048, the Ministry of Marine Resources is embarking on an expensive programme to entice support for increased harvesting of Cook Islands waters by foreign purse seiners and longliners.

According to sources, the Ministry of Marine Resources is preparing to embark on spending tens of thousands of dollars on a public relations exercise to the northern group to sell the purse seining agreement with the European Union and launch a $300,000 [US$195,000] "gifting" programme for the local fishing industry. The money will be distributed as a POBOC – payment on behalf of the Crown.

The exercise is to also convince the northern group that the fisheries agreement with the European Union that the Cook Islands initialised in October last year is of critical economic benefit to the entire country.

Many fishermen in the north aren’t happy that the government wants more purse seiners, saying that because of commercial fishing, their catches have reduced dramatically over recent years. Fish is the main food source in the northern group.

MMR will donate $10,000 [US$6,500] to each of the fishing club’s on the five northern islands – a fuel subsidy for fishermen is also part of the gifting exercise to garner support from the north.

Political commentator Wilkie Rasmussen says he’s heard government will now make sure that the northern group islanders will subscribe to the purse-seining policy.

"Government had claimed that they did but islands like Penrhyn for example don’t like the idea and the same feeling is running through the other islands. After all, it is their very livelihoods that are under threat. So brace yourselves for more taxpayer’s dollars being wasted on charter flights to the northern islands".

Cook Islands News has been told at least $24,000 [US$15,600] is being spent on one MMR charter flight.

Says Rasmussen: "The PM, Ministers and the northern group MPs and officials are already packing the chilly bins and the packs of cigarettes to take on the trip. Hello! We are back, it is campaign time!"

Rasmussen who is also a defence lawyer, makes comparisons in his weekly column between initialising of the EU- Cook Islands purse seining agreement and the ill-fated Toa Petroleum agreement that has cost taxpayers millions.

MMR boss Ben Ponia has repeatedly defended initialisation of the agreement, saying this doesn’t finalise it behalf of the Cook Islands. Other views differ, including those of Rasmussen: "Once you initial or sign the document containing the terms of the contract, regardless of whether you are a Minister of the Crown or a Head of Ministry, that contract is a valid one."

The prime minister and minister of MMR Henry Puna, has appointed a committee of government officials charged with examining the agreement Ponia initialled on behalf of the country.

On the committee are officials from MMR, Foreign Affairs, Crown Law and ministry of Finance and Economic Development. The Democratic opposition party has told CI News that in order for this committee to be balanced and a true reflection of a country involved in making a critical decision that will affect its marine resources, membership should include the opposition, commercial sector and Te Ipukarea Society as an NGO environmental group. The opposition said government and the prime minister must be urged to include these groups to reach fully informed, balanced decisions.

According to sources the Cook Islands is in no position to make any changes to the agreement with the EU, irrespective if the agreement and protocols aren’t in the best interests of the country.

Rasmussen warns that if the government changes its supportive stance on purse seining and takes onboard public sentiment, the EU in the form of the Spanish government is unlikely to merely walk away from the deal.

"I don’t think so. They stand to lose millions. For sure they will fight and take our poor nation to court – mark my words," he says..

Meanwhile Cook Islands News has been awaiting information since December 4 from MMR regarding the number and capacity of purse seiners and long liners operating in Cook Islands waters.

It’s understood MMR is poised to sign up several more longliners and concerns also abound whether these fishing licenses are being undersold.

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; sea safety program - $50,000; Pae Tokerau - $50,000 ($10,000 donated to each islands’ fishing club) total $300,000.

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