Yet Puna, who is also Minister of Marine Resources, has set sail to proudly promote the Marae Moana marine park, which is aimed at protecting Cook Islands waters.
Meanwhile, Marine Resources head Ben Ponia is confident Marae Moana is compatible with the growth of a multi-million dollar purse seine fishing industry, to the scepticism of local environmentalists.
Puna flew to Aitutaki on Saturday to link up with a scheduled Silverseas Expeditions cruise.
The Prime Minister was invited to join the voyage by Conservation International, which is partnering with Silverseas. The cruise will take the Prime Minister from Aitutaki to Palmerston, Suwarrow and Manihiki.
Puna’s aim is to help promote and share the philosophy behind Marae Moana to conservationists, experts, academics and researchers.
But Te Ipukarea Society technical director Kelvin Passfield has taken to social media to urge the government to follow the example set by Palau, which has just declared 80 per cent of its maritime territory as a reserve.
The 500,000 square kilometre sanctuary is the world’s sixth-largest fully protected area, meaning no fishing, or other uses such as drilling for oil can take place in the area.
“...(This) while the Cook Islands Secretary for Marine Resources Ben Ponia and Minister of Marine Resources Henry Puna sell purse seining licences to the Spanish, the fleet with the worst record for setting their nets on FADs and catching juvenile big eye tuna,” Passfield wrote online.
“Where does the huge Marae Moana Park fit into this picture? The word hypocritical comes to mind.”
During a session with the media on Monday, Ponia said he believed the Marae Moana project and purse seine fishing were compatible.
The Ministry of Marine Resources supported the move for the protected area to include the entire exclusive economic zone, he said.
Marae Moana project manager Jacqui Evans said she could not comment as she had not seen the proposed $9.6 million purse seine agreement with the European Union.
“Certainly the news about the agreement was not shared at any of the task force meetings and none of the fisheries agreements are shared at the task force meetings.
“The role of the task force is to come up with an oceans policy that takes into account the wants and needs of all groups that have a stake in the ocean.
“Having said that I hope that the agreement reflects what the public have requested and that there is a balance between fishing and conservation.
“Hopefully with an increase in fishing days, there are measures, for example, to conserve bigeye tuna to balance that increase out.”
The task force is made up of Evans, Seabed Minerals Commissioner Paul Lynch, Office of the Prime Minister chief of staff Elizabeth Wright-Koteka, Ministry of Marine Resources Secretary Ben Ponia and National Environment Service director Joseph Brider.
The group presented the proposed institutional arrangements to the steering committee last Thursday, said Evans.
And there are some amendments being made to the task force recommendations, based on the feedback from the wider group.
“Those decisions are being incorporated into the Marae Moana Oceans Policy. Once the Policy is finalised, we can begin drafting legislation.
“These things do take a long time, particularly when you have a wide range of groups with different and sometimes opposing agendas.”Evans said she was in contact with people involved in setting up marine parks and large scale marine managed areas in other countries and they had all shared similar experiences.
“The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 was established after 10 years of discussion and debate.”
Prime Minister Henry Puna returns from his voyage on November 17.