Shark pillagers in our waters?

Thursday July 11, 2013 Written by Published in Virtues in Paradise
Shark fishing is illegal in Cook Islands waters. Shark fishing is illegal in Cook Islands waters. PHOTO USFWS HEADQUARTERS ON FLIKR

Some months ago I put some hard questions in Parliament to the Minister of Marine Resources Teina Bishop.

I outlined to him reports of tonnes of shark fins being discovered by the HMS Otago on one of the Luen Thai fishing vessels in our waters. The HMS Otago was in our waters on surveillance. Luen Thai is Chinese owned company that the government has given a number of exclusive fishing licenses to fish in under the guise of “exploratory licenses”. Some people were incensed with the “exploratory license” concept and interpreted it as a load of nonsense that would allow shark fishing and finning. Some of you may recall, Minister Bishop gave an undertaking. He said if proven that Luen Thai has been shark finning, they will be kicked out of our waters in an instance. Did he mean it?

The Opposition certainly does not have the resources to go out there and apprehend these reckless pirates and shark killers but it has been somewhat vindicated by the news yesterday that Luen Thai had been fined US$120,000 for shark finning in the waters of the Marshall Islands. The Marshalls had banned shark finning since 2011. The Cook Islands has also created our waters as a shark sanctuary by way of an Executive Order earlier this year. My preference was for legislation to be passed; that to me would be more effective. Let’s see whether checks will be done if indeed Luen Thai is shark finning in our waters.

The proper question here is: how big is shark finning in our ocean? I know it is taking place in the Cook Islands and our authority namely the Ministry of Marine Resources know of it. But the ministry does not want to jeopardize the deal that it’s Minister and Luen Thai has signed. These deals include, money for computers for schools, possible provision of joint/ownership of fishing ships between people in the outer islands and Luen Thai, and grants for supply of materials to hurriedly formed fishing associations around the country. This deal also included the minister having in his office from time to time a representative of Luen Thai as his special advisor. Mind you for those in the know, they say the minister has travelled to China, Taiwan and Asia courtesy of that company. Are these benefits or are they lollies? You decide. One man deserves special praise here and that is Reuben Tylor, a keen fisherman from Ngatangiia who has been challenging Marine Resources plans and slackness in thwarting the demands of the Chinese company to base itself in the Cook Islands. There are talks of lots of money flowing in, of Penrhyn Island for instance having a fish processing plant there and/or even a cannery. If that is to happen the island would serve as a busy port and airport of shipments of fish to destined markets. My reaction, ho-hum, we’ve heard all of that before.

There is indeed a growing ground swell of opposition to the government’s plans to have Luen Thai in its waters. Local fisherman, those in Aitutaki all claim that there is no more fish in our waters. They have been fished out by Luen Thai, who is not only longlining but will also be purse-seining; two devastating methods of fishing. If I have it my way I would no longer think about selling licenses to foreigners, instead I would focus on developing ways we, locally, can maximize the value of fish that we catch as local fishermen. The Opposition policy committee is working on what will also be the best choices for the country and I hope it takes heed of my views. If it doesn’t I will make sure it does. I also hope that Minister Bishop acts on his threat because I am sure if it has happened in the Marshalls, the same company will do the same here. Shark fins are big money, there’s no doubt about that, but does our government have the guts to prosecute. I don’t think so.

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