The US fleet rarely fished in Cook Islands waters until 2012 when persistent fishing began. The method involves the purse seiner circling a large net, up to 300 metres in diameter around schools of skipjack tuna and slowly retrieving this to the side of the vessel where the catch is scooped on board.
Skipjack tuna, which are the target species in the purse seine fishery, are the most abundant tuna species in the Pacific.
The skipjack tuna population is considered healthy and is able to withstand high levels of fishing because of its remarkable reproductive capacity. This tuna has a short life span of less than 3.5 years, mature at six months and breeds daily.
The other common method of fishing in the region is longlining, a method of fishing involving deploying baited hooks on horizontal longlines that can stretch out to 80 kilometres. Longliners target deeper and larger tuna species such as bigeye, yellowfin and albacore tuna.
The most recent record of tuna catches in the Pacific is for 2014 when a total of 2.9 million tonnes of tuna were caught. Of this highest recorded catch, about 2 million tonnes was caught by the purse-seine fishery. The MMR submission highlighted that the majority of purse seine catches are caught in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the eight Pacific Islands who are Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA). Around 700,000 tonnes was caught in the EEZ of Kiribati alone.
The Cook Islands catches in 2014 was 14,000 tonnes - a record at the time but still comprising less than 0.7 per cent of the total catches for the entire Western and Central Pacific region.
“Banning purse seine fishing would have no conservation impact. Purse Seining does not harm the people of the Cook Islands. The real harm is that we have an abundant stock of tuna resources up to 300,000 tonnes at any time and the local fishery only takes 15 tonnes,” says the submission.
“If we do not choose to fish this resource a most significant economic resource effectively becomes worthless and we severely restrict our future prospects to wealth around a small and fragile economic base around tourism.”
All of the purse seine catches in the Cook Islands are caught in the waters of the northern Cook Islands predominately north of 11 degrees south latitude. In 2012 catches were mainly north of Pukapuka on the border with Tokelau but in 2014 and 2015 with the warm waters of the El Nino moving east there was a pronounced shift of fishing towards the north of Penrhyn on the border with Kiribati.
In 2012 the scientific committee of the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) concluded that overfishing of bigeye tuna in the region had been occurring for around 10 years.
“Purse seining using FADs in the Cook Islands does not harm the regional or national sustainability of the stocks because the Cook Island footprint for bigeye is extremely small and makes no significant contribution to the bigeye mortality in the region.
“To put this into context the total catches of bigeye tuna from 2010 to 2014 was 700,000 tonnes and the total bigeye tuna caught at FADs in the Cook Islands during this same period of time was 1,600 tonnes or 0.2 per cent of the total bigeye,” says the MMR submission.
The Ministry rejects the claim by the purse seine petition that “MMR has failed to ban the use of Fish Aggregate Devices by purse seine vessels, despite the unacceptable impact on bigeye tuna stocks”.
“There is no evidence that purse seining is causing an unacceptable impact on bigeye tuna stocks. Therefore a ban on purse seining is not necessary, nor desirable for the Cook Islands. The MMR is backed up in this position by scientific evidence from SPC (Pacific Community) and by the catch limit available through the Tokelau Arrangement.”
The Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is responsible for overseeing the management of the region’s tuna fisheries. It adopts regulations called Conservation and Management Measures (CMMs) which are binding upon member states.
At the annual session of the WCPFC in December 2013 a Conservation and Management Measure for bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack (CMM 2013-01) was adopted.
Recognising that bigeye tuna catches are attributed to both the longline and purse seine fishery, the CMM 2013-01 addresses bigeye tuna overfishing by the adopting the following rehabilitation strategies over a 10 year period: a limit of total purse seine fishing effort to 64,000 vessel fishing days; phasing out of purse seine fishing on the high seas; a four-month ban on purse seine fishing at FAD sets; and a 40 per cent reduction of bigeye tuna catches.
According to a study of fisheries revenues in the region, the access value of foreign fleet licenses has increased from US$ 92 million in 2007 to US$ 349 million in 2014.
Kiribati has the largest increase from US$ 25 million in 2007 to US$ 116 million in 2014. The Cook Islands is notable within the region for the greatest relative increase of 2,645 per cent (US$ 300,000 to US$ 8.4 million).
Since 2014, purse seining accounts for the bulk of fisheries revenues collected by MMR. This has been in part directly associated with the vessel day price paid by the US Treaty for the Cook Islands pool. In addition, the MMR has entered into additional bilateral fishing days with the US industry since 2014 and in 2015 there were large revenues associated with bilateral fishing days sold to the Korean-Kiribati fleet.
Fisheries revenues contribute to the government budget, however, local fishermen currently benefit through direct support of $350,000 a year. - MMR