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Opinion: Time to rethink fisheries management for local benefit

Thursday 13 June 2024 | Written by Supplied | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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Opinion: Time to rethink fisheries management for local benefit
In this file photo from February 2020, Matti Heep, a tourist from Norway, holds his catch after a day with Reelaxing Fishing Charters. PHOTO: Supplied. 21053102

Last week, former lawyer and columnist Reuben Tylor analysed catch figures for purse seining and longline fishing to investigate the low yellowfin catch in the South. In his concluding article of the three-part series, he examines Vaine Wichman’s 2012 report and argues for increased government support to develop the local fishing industry, following the model of Tahiti (French Polynesia).

Vaine Wichman’s report on the economic contribution made by the artisanal and local game fishing industries in Rarotonga in 2012, showed that these local industries were returning more than $5 million each year to the economy. At the time this was more than licencing revenue paid by foreign fishing vessels! It was important therefore not to let fishing by foreign fishing boats damage the resource that this local industry relied on.

We now know Ministry of Marine Resources (Marine) was advised fishing in the North would have minimal if any impact on the resource in the South. So whatever Vaine’s report said, it probably wasn’t taken into account when opening up the North to foreign fishing vessels. But I was also told that Marine considered Vaine’s report exaggerated the value to the economy of the local industry and generally discredited it.

For that reason, I recently asked Marine if there had been any review by an economist of Vaine’s report which supported their stance. No, they hadn’t done this but after receiving my request, Marine did seek a review of Vaine’s report by economists working for FFA (Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency) in Honiara. Marine sent me a copy of this recent review which was critical of some of the methodology adopted by Vaine, but it did not come up with alternative figures for the contribution of the local industry to the economy.

With the growth of tourism over the last 10 years I suspect the industry contribution may today still be more than $10 million or so revenue government receives from licencing foreign boats. It is crucial for Marine to have this information, not only because this sector of the economy may be at risk, but also because it deserves more government support.  

The upside of licencing foreign fishing boats is the licencing revenue and I asked Marine to provide information on the licence fees paid to government. For the Spanish purse seiners, the total for the six-year period 2017 to 2022 came to approximately $3.3 million, or approximately $550,000 for each year. So not a lot of money for a lot of trouble. For the longliners, for the same six-year period, licence fees came to approximately $20,500,000 or an average of approximately $3.5 million per year. This is a valuable contribution to the Cook Islands economy but the real money comes from the regional purse seine agreements. The 2024 budget shows the purse seine licencing revenue was approximately $6.5 million in 2023, and projected to increase to $10 million in 2024.  These amounts are substantially more than our government received prior to 2010. I can understand why government might be reluctant to do anything that interferes with this new source of revenue, even if our fish is costing $40 per kg.

But the question is, can we improve on this in the future? This is where it is useful to look at our neighbour, Tahiti, and see how they manage their fisheries. Tahiti has an EEZ of approximately 5000 square kilometres, two and a half times larger than the Cook Islands EEZ. They do not allow purse seiners. Instead, they licence around 70 smaller long line boats, all locally owned, to fish in their waters. Their total annual long line catch for 2022 was around 7500 tonne. (Our long line catch for the same year in our smaller EEZ was bigger at approximately 9000 tonne). Their yellowfin catch was approximately 1300 tonne, slightly less than the Cook Islands. Bigeye tuna catch was approximately 1300 tonne, more than twice the Cook Islands catch. Approx 90 per cent of their yellowfin and big eye catch is exported on ice and in 2022, their offshore fish export revenues were approximately $34 million. That is approximately 10 times the average annual revenue we get from licencing foreign long line boats even though our longline catch is 15 per cent bigger than Tahiti’s catch. Yellowfin and big eye tuna represented approximately 70 per cent of the $34 million. In addition, even though Tahiti has a population nearly 10 times ours, their fish is much more affordable for local buyers. Local market price for yellowfin tuna loins is less than NZ$15 per kg, which is close to the minimum hourly wage in Tahiti. It takes 4 hours at our minimum hourly wage to buy 1 kg of tuna loin. 

Even ignoring the $34 million, this industry obviously returns substantial revenue to the government in Tahiti. There is all the economic activity around the operation of 70 fishing boats contribution to the economy. In addition, Tahiti also has a large artisanal fishing industry feeding into a vibrant fresh fish market as well as an established game fishing industry. The continued growth of this industry is supported by generous grant and loan finance from their government agencies.

Ignoring the past, could we follow Tahiti? This would take a significant shift in government policy which for several decades has given priority to fishing by foreign boats to the detriment of the development of the local industry. Just look at the past and current years budgets. From the total annual licence revenue of $10 million in 2022/23, government gave grants of approximately $200,000 into the industry, a pittance. These grants were reduced to approximately $150,000 in 2023/24. This is why Vaine Wichman’s report needs to be updated, as only then will Marine stop treating the local industry as a nuisance to their focus on servicing the foreign fishing fleet.

Looking back over the last 40 years, there have been several private sector attempts to develop the local fishing industry, but without government support (and sometimes because of government obstruction) these have not succeeded. Ben Ponia saw the potential of landing the longline catch into Rarotonga when he was secretary of MMR, but his plans were torpedoed by his minister. Last week, CINews letter writer ‘Cicero’ suggested we develop our fisheries jointly with Tahiti. However we do this, I believe it is time government relooks at how we manage our fisheries in order to maximise the revenue from our EEZ, to grow our local fishing industry, and to put affordable fish on the table. There will always be so called “experts” with a long list of reasons why Cook Islanders can’t develop our deep sea fisheries, but I am confident some of our younger and smarter people with vision will take up this challenge.