After Rasmussen released a statement to CI News last Wednesday, saying that he and all other Penhryn Islanders would boycott government’s plan to inject $20 million into developing the harbour on the island, prime minister’s press secretary Trevor Pitt denied any such plans existed. He called Rasmussen’s claims “nonsensical” and said they belonged in “gaga-land.”
But a CI News source now alleges the information Rasmussen used in his statement were based on an email sent to him in error by Ministry of Marine Resources secretary Ben Ponia.
“Penrhyn MP Willie John said Ben Ponia phoned him and said he was sending both him and the prime minister an email with the information it, but Willie’s one never arrived. It was sent to Wilkie instead.”
Tim Tepaki, who last week revealed that his development group, Merchants of Paradise, had earlier discussed with Ponia their own plans for a fishing base on Penrhyn, said that Ponia had warned them that government wanted to develop a fishing hub themselves.
“But while that was “a good thing,” what the government wanted to do went much further than Merchants of Paradise had planned and included developing dry docks for repairing boats.
“We didn’t like this because we also wanted to develop tourism and wanted the lagoon to remain pristine and teeming with fish.
“We also believe the government has maxed out their external borrowing, meaning it will have to engage with other private sectors to develop for them, which is at odds with our proposal of letting the people develop the hub themselves.
“What Merchants of Paradise are looking at is a fishing hub that is purely for transhipment and it wouldn’t cost as much but it would bring in a huge amount of money. The government’s tax take alone would be $15 million.
“If we develop a hub not only for our national fishing the revenue generated would be $46 million, whereas revenue generated by the international fishing fleet if they did their transhipment at Penrhyn is $360 million - and a Godsend for Penrhyn.”
Ironically, Tepaki says, Merchants of Paradise’s own plans arose from a suggestion made by Ponia when the group first approached him with their idea of operating a mother ship with canning capability.
At that meeting, Ponia told the group the World Tuna Association was contemplating banning transhipment of fish on the high seas in 2017.
“We really have him to thank for our latest plan because he told us to forget our mother ship idea and focus instead on developing a hub at Penrhyn where 200 ships could offload their fish.
“Our idea is keep it simple; keep it to transhipment of fish. We also agree with Rasmussen that the matter should be discussed with the people. In fact that’s the essential difference between our proposal and the government’s.
“We’ve already engaged with the people and the submission will be formally put to the people by the mayor. So in fact, we agree with both parties.”
Tepaki says Merchants of Paradise’s plan involves a company called Captain Cook Shipping leasing and operating a container/cargo ship with crew and capacity to carry 185 refrigerated and five dry six metre containers, 90 diesel and 20 petrol 15,000 litre tanktainers and bulk cargo.
“The ship will be based at Penrhyn and travel to Pago Pago to deliver fish, then sail on to Rarotonga to deliver imported goods for the Southern Group and back to Penrhyn with goods for the Northern Group.
“The international fleet is beyond government’s jurisdiction, but we, the private sector and the people of Penrhyn, have no boundaries. That’s the fundamental difference, but I believe we are all on the same page anyway.
“Merchants of Paradise are also on the same page as Wilkie, as we agree this is the people’s project. Merchants of Paradise only have a 15 per cent shareholding.
We are creating the development but for the people to carry out, not us.”
The argument could be put forward that have the people do not have the qualifications to build a fishing hub, Tepaki says.
“We say they have, because they’re entering into a joint venture with partners who know what to do and who are using private sector funding put aside by China under the One China Policy.
“That’s not to be confused with China’s funding for governments. The problem with the Cook Islands government doing it (the project) is that they have maxed out their credit so they would need the private sector to do build it. We disagree with that, we want the people to do it.
“But of course if the hub is developed and generates additional GDP from $46 million national water fishing and $360 million from international fishing that would more than double GDP and allow government to borrow and use the funds that are sitting with China under the One China Policy. It will also make the Cook Islands a major player in the world’s fishing industry. Merchants of Paradise’s fishing hub project is “indigenised 50-50.”
Before anything at all can happen though, the project must have the consent of the people, he says.
“That’s the case not just with Penrhyn but with all the islands where plan to establish development hubs. Atiu is going to have an international golf course and a first class golf resort. Mangaia’s hub will be agriculture because it is the most fertile island and could supply Rarotonga with produce year-round.
“In fact, we are way ahead of government with our development projects and everything we do will be done with the objective of preserving our precious environment.”