Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) remains committed to a sustainably-managed purse seine fishery following the findings of the Purse Seining Special Select Committee.

The committee’s report was tabled in Parliament Monday and recommends that government, through MMR, proceed with development initiatives in the purse seine fishery.

MMR Secretary Ben Ponia says that the committee findings and the views of fisheries experts consulted have validated his position and that of the ministry. [/restrict]

“Our position has always been clear in that banning purse seining or its FADs (fish aggregating devices) in the Cook Islands would have no conservation benefit, deny us the economic benefits of our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and deprive government of the opportunity to actively participate in the regional management of this incredible resource we have been blessed with,” says Ponia.

He says that taking the right stance on this issue was more important than popularity ratings and acknowledges that the Ministry still has a lot of work to do to prove sceptics wrong and to roll back a lot of the negative conjecture on this fishery.

The committee was set up by Parliament on 13 June 2016 to consider the genuineness and grievances of the petitioners relating to Purse Seining in the Cook Islands EEZ, and all other related issues; and to report these and the Committee’s findings and conclusions to Parliament by the end of July 2016. The committee members were Mark Brown (chair), Albert Nicholas, Toka Hagai, Willie John, William Heather, Ngamau Munokoa, James Beer and Tamaiva Tuavera. They received submissions from concerned petitioners, stakeholders and the scientific community.

The committee presented its recommendations and findings in the 30 August report.

Its findings on the anti-purse seining petition focused on its five key grievances presented to Parliament in June 2015.

The first of these claimed that the vast majority of Cook Islanders are opposed to purse seining which the committee remains ‘unresolved’ on.

“It may require a non-binding referendum to determine this question,” concludes the committee.

The findings admit that opposition is widely known and that signatures on the petition, protest marches, submissions by the public and stakeholders, and opinion expressed in the media attest to this fact. It does note that representatives of the Koutu Nui suggested government should develop local fleets to engage in this sector.

“It is also acknowledged that the proponents of the petition (Te Ipukarea Society) did not oppose purse seining per se but opposed the use of FADs in purse seining,” it states.

The committee notes that some people have changed their views and now do not oppose purse seine fishing.

“Both viewpoints have been influenced by the various levels of information made available using either public meetings, TV and newsprint media and social media using confronting imagery.”

It went on to say, “It is the opinion of MMR that the vast majority of Cook Islanders are concerned that purse seining as with any other form of fishing, be done in a sustainable manner, and are not fundamentally opposed to purse seining per se.”

The second grievance of the petitioners that the Cook Islands commitment to global marine conservation will lose all credibility if it “increases its contribution to the overexploitation of bigeye tuna by purse seine fishing” was not supported by the committee. It highlights that the marine park Oceans Policy allows for the multiple-use of our oceans including commercial fisheries and seabed minerals. In addition, the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement 1995, divided up the world’s ocean and established regional fisheries bodies to manage migratory tuna stocks across different EEZs, notes the committee.

“In the Pacific the UN fisheries body is the Western [and] Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) better known as the “Tuna Commission”.”

“The Select Committee notes the comments made by the SPC and the FFA that the MMR has been a leader in marine conservation and its efforts to develop a sustainable commercial fishery including purse seining are commendable and highly credible within the framework of Marae Moana,” says the report.

“Given that the migratory tuna is not the exclusive property of the Cook Islands EEZ the only means for Cook Islands to be effective in their efforts to advocate for conservation and Marae Moana is to utilise our rights to participate in this fishery and demonstrate how to develop a sustainable purse seine fishery.”

On the use of FADs, the committee did not dispute that their use results in greater bycatch of bigeye tuna.

However, it did respond to the petition’s allegation that a report commissioned by MMR in 2012 recommended the development of the fishery should concentrate on free schools of skipjack tuna, and not use FADs to help conserve bigeye tuna.

“Contrary to the petition text, Dr Lehodey does not specifically say the Cook Islands should ban the use of FADs or only fish on free schools. Rather his advice is pitched to at the WCPFC level where FAD sets need to be addressed: Quote “the development of skipjack fishing using free school sets rather than FAD sets should be a priority to sustain the WCPFC effort for reducing juvenile bigeye mortality”.”

The findings further state, “Because of the lack of fishing data in 2011 there was an overly optimistic assumption that the majority of fishing in the Cook Islands would be on free school sets. However, since 2012 the MMR is now aware that in fact over 70 per cent of sets are being made on FADs and the Cook Islands are a FAD dependent purse seine fishery.”

“As pointed out free sets also lead to higher per cent of adult yellowfin tuna being caught which impacts catches of the local fishermen. This suggests that a combination of free school and FAD sets is required to balance the by-catch of bigeye and yellowfin tuna.”  SOURCE: COOK ISLANDS MMR/PACNEWS [/restrict]