The Ministry of Marine Resources’ (MMR) proposed changes to the National Plan of Action for sharks, the key policy document for shark conservation and management in the Cooks, have been met with a skeptical response from conservationists.
A two-day public consultation last week on revising the National Plan of Action (NPOA) for sharks was attended by a number of conservationists, traditional leaders and academics who were briefed by Dr Shelley Clarke, a recognised expert on the shark fin trade and Pacific shark fisheries, on the global and regional status of sharks.
MMR secretary Ben Ponia said the NPOA’s objective is to support fisheries management practices which protect the sustainability of shark stocks, promote full utilisation of fishery by-catch and avoid animal cruelty.
But Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI), which has long encouraged the government to deem the Cook Islands a shark sanctuary, was unimpressed by the level of protection the draft NPOA would afford sharks.
”Even with the proposed amendments there are loopholes for foreign companies to continue to fish sharks,“ the organisation has said in a statement.
One of the key measures being suggested for the draft shark NPOA is strict protection of threatened population status sharks, like basking, whale and oceanic whitetip, requiring prompt release without ill treatment.
PICI notes this amendment only marginally increases protection of sharks already afforded by Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) recommendations and relies on everyone involved to properly identify all species of sharks caught.
However, there are no nationally appointed observers on exploratory vessels, which do not currently have to register with South Pacific Commission.
According to the MMR observer data collected between 2008 and 2010, there were 371 sharks caught. None of the observer records and catch log sheets indicated that the fishing operators were deliberately targeting shark.
MMR said for species which can handle some fishing pressure, catch limits can be set to restrict the catch to low levels that make it ”impossible“ to target sharks.
To discourage finning, fins would be required to remain attached to shark carcasses up until the point of landing.
This is despite representatives at the consultation from Te Ipukarea Society (TIS), the National Heritage Trust, PICI, and the aronga mana all voting for zero-retention of sharks.
”A zero-retention policy, outlined in enforceable regulations would not only preserve sharks, it is the easiest method for enforcement and would give the Cook Islands better control over this illegal activity,“ says PICI.
According to Ponia, simply banning the landing and trade of all sharks in the Cook Islands may force this practice to go ”underground“.
It also could ”infringe on the future rights of Cook Islanders to fully utilise and trade in small amounts of artisanal catches.“
There are no Cook Islanders currently commercially fishing for sharks.
Other draft measures include establishing a Shark Advisory Board and a prohibition of purse-seine sets around whale sharks.
Further consultation will be conducted with fishing operators and a revised shark NPOA will be released for public submission.