Late last week, several members of the public brought forth allegations that crew from two Chinese-flagged fishing vessels were fishing for Giant Trevally while the vessels are currently berthed in Avatiu Harbour.
Local tourism business owner Sheryl John from Reef Sub notified CI News about the incident, and said a 60 kilogram specimen was caught by the crewmembers.
She said the fish are described as a huge draw card for tourists and locals, who watch them eat scraps handed down to them by fisherman filleting their catches on the wharf.
Offshore Division Director Andrew Jones from the Ministry of Marine Resources said he was notified of the allegations when he visited the harbour last Wednesday.
He said he immediately contacted the fishing company’s agent and told him if that under no circumstances were the crewmembers allowed to fish while the vessels were in port.
Jones said he was told by the company official that he would immediately tell the crew not to fish in the harbour.
MMR launched an investigation of the alleged incident, and at no point has any evidence of Giant Trevally being caught surfaced, said Jones.
He added that an MMR compliance officer conducted a boarding and inspection of the vessel, which included a search of any locally caught, reef fish.
“I am confident that MMR has done everything possible to investigate these accusations but we have found no evidence ... Nor has any of the public offered any evidence to MMR,” Jones wrote in an email.
At the time, John said she was worried the entire population – estimated to be between 12-15 specimens – would be eaten if the fishing continued.
Local whale researcher and conservationist Nan Hauser said she was “livid” when notified about the allegations.
“The Giant Trevally aren’t just good friends ... everyone comes to see them,” she said. “It’s a given that nobody is allowed to catch them.”
Giant Trevally are known to be able to grow to sizes of up to 170cm, and weigh up to 80 kilograms. According to one estimate, a fish of that size can be up to 27-years-old.
“They are just incredible animals,” she said.
Those who have brought forth the allegations said they did not know if the fish were consumed or used as bait.
“It’s disrespectful to the country and it’s illegal,” said Hauser. “I say press charges.”
Hauser said with the opening of the Marae Moana Marine Park hub, conservationists want to draw attention to various highlights of the ocean life around the Cook Islands, including the Giant Trevally – described as “an icon in Avatiu Harbour”.
“This would have had a positive knock-on effect for tourism, by bringing tourists down to the harbour, where they would discover local businesses like the fishing charters,” she said.
“Now we have lost an iconic member of the local fishermen's family that were often a highlight for customers.”
Ironically, Hauser and her team captured underwater video footage of the massive fish only a couple of weeks ago.
In addition to Giant Trevally, it is alleged the crewmembers also caught at least one Moray eel.
Ali Haible, a staff member of Akura Fishing Charters and daughter of Hauser, said yesterday that she has noticed an absence of Giant Trevally in the harbour.
“We noted last week that they weren’t coming around,” she said. “There’s just a few of them, not the 12 to 15 that were coming around.”