Last February, an estimated eight kilograms of wet shark fins were found aboard a Chinese flagged longliner during a surveillance operation by Cook Islands Maritime Police.
The infractions by the vessel are a violation of Cook Islands shark conservation regulations, punishable with fines ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 - with each shark constituting a separate offense.
Upon the discovery, Prime Minister Henry Puna - the former Minister of Marine Resources - made an “executive decision” using the advice of the Ministry’s Secretary Ben Ponia to allow the boat to proceed through the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), without having charges laid by local authorities.
At the time, Puna’s office released a statement saying “Government is presently utilising the avenues available to it to convey this discovery to the appropriate Chinese authorities, and the WCPFC”.
This week, WCPFC Compliance Manager Dr Lara Manarangi-Trott said her organisation was aware of some aspects of the case, but as the incident occurred in Cook Islands waters, it’s “clearly a matter for the Cook Islands and its domestic laws”.
Manarangi-Trott said the relevant facts in the case are matters of interpretation of conservation and management measures, which are for member states such as the Cook Islands to determine, not the WCPFC.
“Sharks are managed by the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), and the Commission has agreed to a number of conservation and management measures for sharks,” she wrote in an email and in response to questions submitted by CI News.
“The rules in conservation and management measures are for Commission members and other cooperating countries to implement through their domestic license conditions, laws and regulations.”
When reached, MMR’s Ponia said the case is currently being “prosecuted” and could not comment any further.
In an earlier release, Puna’s office also said the shark fin find would be reported to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, however, the Chinese longliner does not appear on its current list of vessels presumed to have carried out illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities.
The vessel which committed the infractions has since been identified as the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 199 – a longlining vessel authorised to fish in the high seas of the Pacific Ocean, according to the WCPFC vessel registry.
Another vessel involved in the incident, the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 189, was also boarded by maritime police, but no infractions were reported as a result of that particular inspection.
Both vessels are owned by Weihai Hengyuan Fisheries Co. Ltd – a Chinese-based fishing company.
Sharks, shark meat, and shark fins are not listed as products offered by the company, according to its website.