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NES develops environmental management plan to address unsustainable turtle tours

Wednesday 6 March 2024 | Written by Losirene Lacanivalu | Published in Environment, National


NES develops environmental management  plan to address unsustainable turtle tours
Halatoa Fua. Photo: Supplied/20102821

The National Environment Service is developing an environmental management plan to address concerns about unsustainable tourism practices impacting sea turtles in Rarotonga.

NES director Halatoa Fua says their work on a Turtle Management Plan is their response to the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Cook Islands Tourism and the turtle tour operators.

NES, through the Rarotonga Environment Authority, is now advertising for a qualified and experienced consultant to develop an environmental management plan with a focus on sea turtle conservation for key areas of concern within Rarotonga.

In a statement, NES states that following ongoing concerns from various stakeholders, multi-government agency meetings have been held between NES, Cook Islands Tourism (CIT), and the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) to identify options to address the mounting concerns with the way turtle tours in the southern Rarotonga passages, particularly Avaavaroa, are being conducted.

Concerns vary from the disturbance to the endangered turtles present and coral destruction, to safety and the Cook Islands’ reputation as a responsible and sustainable tourism destination.

NES says that while Cook Islands Tourism has implemented a variety of measures under the MOU with operators and visitors to encourage responsible choices, these voluntary measures have been selectively taken up by the industry and have not managed to address the situation sufficiently.

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The MOU was signed last month between Cook Islands Tourism and nine turtle tour operators in the Avaavaroa passage aiming to protect the marine environment and ensure guest safety. Tourism had earlier stated that it is a challenge to monitor the operation because there is no formal legislation around this and Tourism has no legal authority to regulate it. The MOU is a collaboration between Tourism, NES, and the MMR.

NES says they agreed that a more comprehensive approach was required. NES sought the support of its Project ENUA (Enhancing Nature's Unique Areas) that aims to reduce and mitigate negative environmental impacts of the key development sectors. Project ENUA’s request was supported by the project’s implementing partner United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and endorsed by its project steering committee, allowing it to proceed to REA (Rarotonga Environment Authority).

With the REA approval received, NES advertised for a consultant who will assist the NES Project ENUA team and its partners to complete stakeholder mapping and consultations, complete desktop assessments and briefing note/summary report, complete a draft management plan for review and input, complete a final plan, and provide recommendations.

NES says that the overarching aim of the Rarotonga Passage Environment Management Plan is to ensure environmental conservation in areas currently at risk of environmental degradation.