Fishing for answers

Tuesday July 10, 2012 Written by Published in National

The Ministry of Marine Resources and the Cook Islands Fishing Association have recently released a report, prepared by consultant Vaine Wichman, that delves into the reasons fishers are experiencing a decline in catch rates. Rachel Reeves has developed a story using excerpts from Wichman’s report, which was completed in March.

Entitled ‘Fishing for Answers’, Vaine Wichman’s report is a comprehensive 56-page assessment of the Cook Islands’ artisanal and game fishing industry.

The report confirms that in the experience of artisanal fishers (small-scale, low-tech commercial and/or subsistence fishers) and game fishers (charter operators), fish stocks are declining. It predicts a further decline in yellowfin and skipjack tuna catch around Rarotonga in coming years.

‘Fishing for Answers’ poses an important question: ”For whom are our marine resources being developed and fished? Our people or international fishers?“

Who is benefiting from the Cook Islands marine resources – local fishers, or the better-resourced, more sophisticated foreign purse seine and longline vessels licensed to fish locally?

What does it all mean?

Wichman’s report concludes that declining stocks not only affect fishers’ income, but ”threaten their existence“ altogether.

”Seeking income and employment in other sectors of the economy or overseas is becoming a practical option for our fishers. This will definitely destabilise the fishing culture of our islands as they pull up roots and head off overseas,“ the report suggests.

Competition catches are down and consumption is down.

Less fish is available, and people continue to seek alternative sources of protein – primarily unhealthy, canned, imported substitutes like corned beef. The dietary shift is accelerated by outbreaks of ciguatera poisoning, which discourage people from consuming lagoon fish.

The offshoot of the change in diet is an increase in instances of non-communicable disease.

The longer-term consequences of dwindling fish stocks are an exodus of fishers from the country.

MMR’s job, ‘Fishing for Answers’ says, is to sustainably manage ”various forms of fishing co-existing in a declining pool of tuna catch“.

Because the ministry is giving licences to foreign companies, it is forcing local fishers to share their resource.

”What is currently available and being fished will now have to be shared with a host of more sophisticated exploratory and foreign fishing operations who do not live in the country and therefore have no commitments to social and economic wellbeing of, in the first instance, the livelihood of our artisanal and game fishing community, and in the second instance, whose exchange of meagre fishing licence fees will never replace the displacement that may occur to local fishers (whether they be artisanal, game or local longline operators),“ the report reads.

It mentions that small operators have been complaining for two years, but that foreign longline boats ”do not feel yet the decline“.

”For whom are our marine resources being developed and fished? Our people or international fishers? The MMR has refuted criticisms made that our people are not benefiting from policy shifts which will see more fishing licenses issued by the fact that fishing license revenue will go up. Even though this is not a terms of reference of this report, the fishing license income streams if distributed throughout the fishing community does not add up to a half of what the artisanal and game fishing community has been contributing to the economy since self-government. This suggests that the licensing regime in fact is selling us short rather than providing our fishers and our people with their worth from what has been extracted from our waters.“

The fisheries sector

The fisheries sector comprises over 6 percent of the country’s GDP, and is the most productive behind tourism.

While artisanal and game fishing are less profitable than other fisheries subsectors, its ”socio-cultural significance should not be understated“.

”The demand for fresh fish remains an unsatisfied constant, and this fine balance of small fishers effort(s) alongside the local longliners and the pa enua frozen and dried fish suppliers observes a very fine equilibrium supply and demand chain. Slight negative shifts in catch will have harmful effects on our local fishers,“ the report says.

It is the smaller operators that are feeling the pinch most dramatically.

Local v foreign longliners

Foreign longliners, in contrast, are not feeling the squeeze.

The northern fishery hosts foreign vessels, which catch albacore and ship it to Pago Pago to be canned. The licence limit for the albacore fishery in the north is 40, and for the southern group it is 10.

The cap for the northern fishery has been reached.

Albacore is more prominent in the north while yellowfin is distributed throughout the Cook Islands’ EEZ.

”This fact raises alarm. If government policy is set to proceed in authorising 17 exploratory licences to fish in our waters, coupled with a full complement of 10 southern longliner vessels and 40 northern fishing licenses/vessels, some stress has to eventually be felt on the fish stock in these regions,“ Wichmans’ report says.

”MMR responses advising that there would not be any stress in stocks due to each fishery region targeting a specific species must be qualified by the fact that at the end of the day, tuna being migratory, and depending on the fishing method and gear used, it will be logical that yellowfin tuna, the main fish caught by game fishers will indeed be affected.“

Local longline operators have been ”adamant that their catch declines were not due to poor fishing practices but rather that there was just no fish out there“, the report says.

They have questioned the need for exploratory licences to be issued to foreigners, as they believe their catch logs dating back 15 years should provide sufficient data records for the ministry.

”Some of them (local longliners), having invested well over a million dollars in this period in developing their operations... feared for their future and the knowledge that government/MMR has offered a suite of exploratory licenses to an overseas interest,“ the report says.

Revenue from fishing licences is expected to increase to $2.3 million per annum – but ‘Fishing for Answers’ points out that is less than half of what is produced already by subsistence, local longline, and coastal commercial fishers annually.

Climate change

Exacerbating the problem of dwindling stocks is climate change.

Dr Teina Rongo has been able to prove that tuna catches increase following El Nino years and decrease following La Nina years.

”...As we shift into the negative phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), the availability of tuna resources in waters surrounding Rarotonga are likely to decrease“, Dr Rongo’s report reveals.

This means La Nina is expected to become more frequent, displacing westward ocean systems that attract food sources for tuna.

It is in this context that MMR will be making decisions about fishing policies and programmes.

”Indeed, factors outside of climate oscillations that may reduce the availability of these resources (eg, increased number of foreign fishing vessels within the Cook Islands’ EEZ) will need to be properly managed,“ Dr Rongo has written.


MMR exists, of course, to manage the Cook Islands’ marine resources.

‘Fishing for Answers’ asks whether MMR is prioritising the interests of local artisanal and game fishers. It suggests that licencing foreign boats is not the most sustainable way to manage the country’s resource.

”...The fishing licence income streams if distributed throughout the fishing community will not add up to a half of what the artisanal and game fishing community has been contributing to the economy since self-government,“ the report concludes.

It ends by making a few recommendations, some of which are as follows:

- That MMR and the Statistics Office work to improve

- That government subsidise fuel for all fishers

- And that foreign interests be balanced with the interests of ”our people (who) own the right first to fish their waters“.

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