Suwarrow: Romantic no more

Monday July 02, 2018 Written by Published in Environment
Frigate birds fl y over the remains of a FAD on Suwarrow. Thanks to ever-increasing ocean pollutuion an enormous amount of rubbish is being washed up on the remote island’s beaches. 18062918 Frigate birds fl y over the remains of a FAD on Suwarrow. Thanks to ever-increasing ocean pollutuion an enormous amount of rubbish is being washed up on the remote island’s beaches. 18062918

Way back in 1890, Suwarrow was described as the “most romantic island in the world” by Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife Fanny after the Stevenson family visited the island. From a distance, even today, you can get a feeling of why she thought so.


An aerial view of Suwarrow shows what appears to be a pristine, untouched atoll, in the middle of a beautiful blue ocean, with one or two yachts anchored peacefully in the lagoon. This is the island that was made famous by Tom Neale, who lived alone there for a number of years. A book was written about his life there based on his regular journal entries. There have also been many rumours of hidden treasure on the island over the decades.

You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s remote location would mean that Suwarrow is free of the marine pollution issues facing so much of the globe. And 30 years ago, you would have been correct. However, zooming in for a closer look at Suwarrow now, it is not treasure you will find, but exactly the opposite. Trash. The plastic age and the increase in industrial tuna fishing has made its mark on this paradise

During a trip to Suwarrow in May and June for rat removal and bird monitoring surveys, the team from Te Ipukarea Society discovered the ugly truth about what is happening to our first-ever national Park, which was declared a park 40 years ago this year.

As we travelled around the large lagoon to each island to count the birds, we discovered an enormous amount of waste washed up on the beaches. A large amount of this, especially the larger items, was obviously from purse seine and longline fishing vessels fishing in the West and Central Pacific Ocean.

Of particular concern was the number of drifting Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs), with over 50 found washed up on beaches. These may be considered as treasure by the purse seine boats that set them adrift, especially if they get a catch of several hundred tonnes of tuna from setting their nets around them. But to the otherwise natural beauty of Suwarrow, they are nothing but trash. Worse still, they can be fatal to our precious marine life. At least two of them were responsible for the death of turtles, as turtle remains were found associated with these FADs. The turtles would have been tangled in the netting that surrounds these FADs, and would have died a slow horrible death from starvation.

According to reports, there are about 10,000 new fads deployed into our oceans every year. They can be fitted with transmitter beacons so that they can be located, or with sonar equipment that indicates the amount of fish aggregating at the FAD.

If there are no fish gathering under them, the boats usually don’t bother picking them up. This is a financial decision, as the boat operators would spend much more on fuel and lost fishing time than the FADs are worth. We believe this should be viewed as illegal marine pollution and should be covered under some law or international convention.

If you consider there are about 100,000 FADs drifting in the WCPO at any one time, you can imagine how many turtles, and other marine life that gets tangled in these FADs, must be dying.

We think it is time that the West and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) did much more to address this problem. The current four-month FAD fishing closure is ineffective when the FADs continue to drift throughout the whole year, or until they wash up on our islands.

As a small local non-government organisation, TIS can really only raise awareness about the scale of the issue, and encourage the Cook Islands government through the Ministry of Marine Resources  to also raise the issue at international meetings on fisheries, as well as at international Marine Protected Area meetings, because of our Cook Islands Marine Park

            - Marae Moana.

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