The little-patrolled waters of the Cook Islands’ vast exclusive economic zone fall in the path of what has been described as the new highway for narcotics like methamphetamine and cocaine.
The drugs are transported from Latin America to Australia on small yachts that stop over on remote atolls.
Former Australian police detective Rod Henderson says the Northern Group atolls are particularly exposed to yacht traffic, due to prevailing winds.
Biosecurity in the group is sparse and traffickers have an easy run through the area, he adds.
Pukapuka Island Administration executive officer Pio Ravarua said they were aware of the reports of drug traffickers using the seas around them as a route.
However Ravarua said they had not yet encountered any yachts or sailboats involved in such activity.
“We hardly have yachts coming into the island because of our reef which is considered quite dangerous, and those who are not versed with it, they do not try to come near it,” Ravarua said.
“But if there are yachts or sailboats visiting the island, we have our police officer and agriculture officer here who follow the proper customs and biosecurity procedures before they allow the yachters in.”
A new, revised agreement with New Zealand’s immigration authority enables the Cook Islands to get support in the outer islands, and implement appropriate responses.
Pio Ravarua said yachts were seen more frequently on the sparsely populated neighbouring islands of Suwarrow and Palmerston.
According to a report by British newspaper The Guardian, hard drugs are being packed into the hulls of sailing boats in the US and Latin America and transported to Australia via South Pacific islands.
In the past five years, it reports there has been an explosion in the number of boats, sometimes carrying more than a tonne of cocaine.
The local authorities say the vast ocean space of the Cook Islands is proving a major challenge to keeping tabs on movements of sailing boats and yachts in our waters.
Lack of resources also pose an obstacle in regularly monitoring the vast exclusive economic zone.