Marae Moana Establishment Trust responds to Ministry of Marine Resources publicity over fishing buffer zones

Monday January 23, 2017 Written by Published in Environment

THE SIZE of marine protected areas or “fishing exclusion zones” around islands is the final decision to be confirmed by Cabinet before Marae Moana, the Cook Islands Marine Park is legally designated.


These zones are areas where local small-scale fishermen will be allowed to fish, but large-scale commercial fishing vessels (longliners and purse seiners) will not be permitted. Seabed mining will also be banned within these protected areas.

The size of the protected areas is measured in nautical miles by a line from the coast of each island and extending outwards towards the ocean (see maps). Longlining is currently excluded 12nm around the outer islands and 24nm around Rarotonga, while purse seining is excluded 24nm around the outer islands and 48nm around Rarotonga. The Seabed Minerals Authority has agreed to a 50nm no exploration and mining zone around islands.

MMR’s point 1: “The Ministry of Marine Resources supports an increase in buffer zones around islands to reduce interaction between commercial and local fishing activity within the multiple-use Marine Park, Marae Moana.”

The House of Ariki and Koutu Nui proposed a 100nm zone. This was supported by the majority of the public, with some suggestions to exclude foreign fishing boats from the Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) altogether (200nm exclusion zones for foreign boats).

Although MMR wants to see only 24nm of protection around each island, government has already announced a compromise of 50nm of protection at the Our Oceans meeting in America. This was agreed between government, the House of Ariki, Koutu Nui, Te Ipukarea Society and other agencies and organisations at a marine park steering committee meeting. This also fulfils our international obligation to achieve 10 per cent protection of marine areas by 2020 .

MMR’s point 2: “Longliners primarily target albacore tuna, and purse seiners target skipjack tuna. The key species of interaction between small-scale local fishers and commercial fisheries are yellowfin tuna and wahoo.”

Longliners and purse seiners catch species fished by local small scale fishermen. In 2015, foreign  fishing vessels caught 17,955 tonnes of skipjack, 2323 tonnes of yellowfin tuna and 123 tonnes of wahoo. Local fishermen caught 11 tonnes of skipjack in the same year. Reliable long-term data is needed to determine how local fishermen are affected by large-scale commercial fishing vessels in Cook Islands. 

MMR’s point 3: “There is a lack of conservation benefits by extending the large scale protected areas from 24nm to 50nm [because tuna will simply migrate to another place and get caught there]”

The Marae Moana view is protected areas give more chance for opportunistic spawners and other fish to release their eggs in protected zones or elsewhere before being caught. The Spanish mackeral, another migratory species, has been shown to spawn in protected areas (Tobin et al, 2014).

It’s also important not to examine the protected areas through the narrow focus of just tuna conservation. Protected areas aim to conserve a wider range of biodiversity that include turtles, whales, sharks, seabirds and other species important to our ecosystems health and economic development. There are also likely to be not yet considered effects of large-scale fishing that protected areas will help prevent as a precautionary measure.

MMR’s point 4: ‘From a practical view, it is MMR’s estimation that a larger buffer will significantly reduce the fishing grounds between the northern atolls and the outer limits of the EEZ, particularly for the longline fishery. “We believe this will create a significant amount of congestion within areas allowed to be fished and create dangerous situations for the fishermen and observers at sea.” ‘

With 50nm protected areas in place, there are still about 800,000 square kilometres of fishing ground available in the north. That is about three times the size of New Zealand. The Marae Moana view is that this is sufficient space for fishing.

MMR’s point 5: “A reality is that much of the fishing effort may also then move to the high seas areas adjacent to the Cook Islands EEZ, which will be more difficult to monitor and, produce no conservation or economic benefit to the Cook Islands at all”

In many other countries the fishing industry has respected closed areas. With the majority of the Cook Islands EEZ still available for fishing under a 50nm protected area scenario it is questionable to assume that fishing effort will automatically move to the high seas.

 MMR’s point 6: “In a 2013 report, the Pacific Community (SPC) stated: ‘Previous experience with changing fishing areas has shown that fishing effort is simply redistributed to areas where fishing is allowed.‘”

The Marae Moana perspective is the 50nm protected areas will give local fishermen more of a chance of catching fish that swim within those areas by moving large scale commercial fishing efforts further away from our islands.

MMR’s point 7: “MMR says neighbouring Samoa is an example of a small exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that cannot support the length of a longline deployed. MMR believes reduction of available fishing areas in the CI EEZ has the potential to lead to a similar collapse.”

Despite Samoa’s small EEZ (16 times smaller than ours), their fishery was still worth $8.4 million in 2007.

MMR’s point 8: “We are also implementing a catch-based harvest strategy in the form of a quota management system (QMS) to more effectively manage the amount of fish caught in our zone in the longline fishery.”

The Marae Moana perspective is that both the QMS and protected areas can be used as tools for conserving tuna at the same time, though QMS requires a significant improvement in surveillance and reporting including electronic surveillance. Unless these are in place, the QMS system is in our view inadequate to do what it is designed to do.

With the support of the public, Aronga Mana and other organisations, government has announced a 50nm protected area for all Islands in the Cook Islands to maintain, preserve and ensure fish for our future and a Marae Moana that will encapsulate that in legislation, meet international obligations and balance conservation with our countries economic needs.

Government officials will now need to follow through with that policy and implement it. - Marae Moana Establishment Trust

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