On the back of a $9.6 million purse seine fishing deal signed with the European Union, Marine Resources secretary Ben Ponia says fish aggregating devices (FADs) are necessary for purse seiners in the Cook Islands, as fishing free schools of fish here is not effective.
Purse seiners do not come to Cook Island waters during the four months they are not allowed to use FADs, as specified by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, he says. However Te Ipukarea Society has been vocal about the dangers of these man-made objects that can also attract “by-catch” such as bigeye juveniles and endangered animals like turtles which are hauled up along with targeted species.
In shedding light on the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SPFA) which would allow Spanish purse seiners to fish in Cook Islands waters, Ponia stressed the agreement had not been ratified by either the EU or the Cook Islands. There was also some confusion over how the SPFA was layered and its different timeframes, he said.
“A framework agreement establishes the general principles of cooperation in the field of responsible and sustainable fisheries.
“An agreement in itself does not in itself authorise EU vessels to fish and is a longer-term arrangement with an eight-year term.” A protocol specified the conditions for access to the Cook Islands waters, including payments, he said.
“The protocol has been set at a four-year term and will have to be annually reviewed by parties if EU vessels are to continue fishing in the Cook Islands.
“Under the Protocol the EU will continue to fund its contribution for access and marine sector support, irrespective (of whether) the fleets decide to visit.”
The level of fishing access requested by the EU was relatively small and equivalent to only 125 fishing days, he said.
“The financial package totalling $9.6 million is the best package so far for any fishing arrangement and will provide the equivalent of $19,000 for every day a purse seiner fishes in the Cook Islands.”
This is equivalent to the fees which the Parties to Nauru Agreement (PNA) charge fleets to fish in its eight Pacific Island-member waters.
As a comparison, in 2012 when the US purse seiners first began to visit the Cook Islands, the payment was $5,300 for every fishing day, Ponia said.
“So three years later for MMR to be in a position to negotiate a package which charges a huge increase of $19,000 dollars per day is a good reflection of the success in promoting the value of access to the Cook Islands fishing grounds.”
Part of the requirement of the SPFA is that some portion of the financial package goes to support the marine sector.
“For this portion of funds we will be proposing to Cabinet to support a fuel subsidy for local fishermen as the cost of fuel particularly on the outer islands is a major impediment,” Ponia said.
MMR would also propose to upgrade the infrastructure of laboratories to meet EU market requirements for food safety testing and a modern surveillance centre for national and sub-regional fisheries surveillance operations, he said.
The 125 fishing days allocated under the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement was well within the annual quota of 1,250 fishing days assigned to the Cook Islands by the Tuna Commission, Ponia said.
In terms of the bigger picture it was also important to realise that if the Cook Islands does not utilise its “fair share” of 1,250 fishing days the country ran the risk of the Tuna Commission reassigning those fishing days to other Pacific Islands.
“The tuna is an international fishery and our rights are not held in perpetuity, so it’s simply a case of ‘use it or lose it’.
“In terms of sustainability the skipjack tuna population can easily withstand even the peak levels of catches attained in 2014 which was 1.6 million tonnes.”
The scientists actually expected the skipjack population to grow over the next 10 to 20 years, he said.
“I believe the greatest threat to the health of skipjack tuna population is not from overfishing but the impacts of sea temperature rise from climate change.”