No evidence of declining stocks in EEZ

Friday 25 March 2011 | Published in Letters to the Editor

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Dear Editor,

I wish to both thank and reply to Mr Tylor’s letter as we appreciate the opportunity for a well-informed debate with the public.

As pointed out in my earlier response, the extracts that were quoted by Mr Tylor for the “Cook Islands” report of 2006 relate to the overall regional picture. However at the level of the Cook Islands EEZ we are managing our stocks well. I quote the report “Yellowfin catches from the Cook Islands EEZ are insignificant relative to total WCPO catches and there are no concerns with the current levels of yellowfin catches from the EEZ” (para 34, pg8). On the issue of bigeye the report states “There are no concerns with the current, insignificant levels of bigeye catches from the Cook Islands EEZ” (para 38, p9).

We do not have evidence that stocks of yellowfin or bigeye are declining and are confident that tuna and billfish stocks continue to be well managed. I believe the (draft) 2011 National Tuna Fisheries Status Report for the Cook Islands which SPC is the lead author will support this. I might add we have not been able to point to localised depletion around our FADs and coastal waters because we simply do not have catch sheets from our artisanal and small commercial fishers. We have begun to address this through a project with SPC which we hope to undertake with the support of the Cook Island Fishing Association (CIFA).

Pressure from our stocks is external and caused by overfishing occurring in other parts of the Pacific. Given the migratory nature of tuna stocks the purse seiner fishing that occurs in Kiribati, for example, might reduce the number of skipjack which were headed downstream to our waters. It also reinforces the need for regional management. If it turns out that the main purse seiner fishing grounds for our fleets are in the high seas waters between us and Kiribati then we may then need a sub-regional arrangement with a fishing vessel day scheme shared between our countries.

I wish to assure the public that the MMR has sufficient in-house capacity and links to regional organisations to determine sustainable levels of fishing. We have collected various assessments to ensure that our proposed exploratory regime will be maintained within these levels. The stock assessments are variable, for example it would not be the same under the current La Nina conditions compared to an El Nino year. Until as such time that we understand the variability behind our stock abundance we do not wish to be locked into a total allowable catch TAC figure based on our (insufficient) historical catch record.

Yes we intend to make our catch data public, as is already the case.

We have yet to negotiate details with the fishing companies interested in purse seiner fishing but sustainable fishing practices is the key factor. If for example we allowed just 15,000 metric tonnes (mt) of skipjack to be harvested this would be 0.8 percent of the total catch of 1,783,986 mt caught in 2009. We would also look ahead to these companies’ long term business prospectus, to envision ‘leveraged benefits’ that we might extract from their operations, and not just licensing revenue. For example perhaps their fuel tankers vessels might be able to deliver cheaper diesel for power or aviation fuel to the northern group islands or they employ locals for the net-mending facilities onshore.

Marine has not changed its policy on purse seining. For more than twenty years we have had a multilateral treaty with the US allowing their purse seiners to operate in our waters and collected several hundred thousand dollars in fees. Therefore it would be hypocritical of us to say we do not want purse seiners in our waters. The most recent significant catch was approximately 4000 mt in 2002 and in 2009 it was 600 mt.

The MMR intends to charge the operators for the exploratory licenses which we issue but we have not negotiated these terms yet.

I wish to point out that the draft exploratory plans which were presented to Cabinet earlier this week are now being released to the public and hopefully may fill in gaps that recent news reports were unable to.

Ben Ponia

Secretary, Marine Resources