In this, my second article, I want to look at some of the reasons our fisheries resource appears to be in serious trouble.
ago the Ministry of Marine Resources called a meeting with fishermen to explain
why the catch had declined so rapidly.
meeting I asked whether the foreign fishing boats, and in particular the purse
seiners, were in any way responsible for the declining catches.
that the foreign fishing boats they had licenced to fish in our waters had any
impact at all on the decline in catch in the Southern group.
MMR gave two
reasons for their statement.
said because our tuna resource is so large and the foreign boats catch is so
small, the foreign boats catch has no impact on our fish stocks.
of the fish being caught by the foreign boats are in the Northern group, and they
said our fish in the Southern group don’t come from these same stocks.
So again, no
impact on our fish stocks in the Southern group.
for the decline in catches instead was the weather pattern called La Nina which
has changed the migration patterns of tuna.
resource” argument depends of course upon it actually existing, and this is
where the problem begins.
You cannot accurately
measure the size of a fish stock, so scientists use several formulae to
important of these formulae uses the reported catch over several years to
estimate the stock.
As long as
the quantities and size of fish caught over a time period are stable, then the
stock is safe and the fishery is sustainable.
reported catch or the size of fish begins to fall, then fishing activity needs
to be cut back until it becomes stable again. This formula has many faults, one
of which is that it relies on accurate and prompt reporting as well as prompt
analysis of the catch figures.
If the stock
is depleted quickly, and/or the reporting and analysis is not accurate or not
up to date, then the stock can be wiped out before fishing is cut back.
If we accept
the formula as valid for the moment, then based on the catch of local fishermen,
and that of the only locally owned commercial boat, there is certainly no large
stock of fish.
doesn’t rely on our local fishers catch information for its stock assessment,
so how does it justify the large stock argument? MMR’s latest report on the
Cook Islands catch was published in 2017, so I suspect its analysis of our
stocks is well out of date.
the latest SPC regional report on tuna stocks relies on reported catch
information which is already 3 years out of date.
The SPC says
the regional resource of yellow fin tuna and even big eye tuna is in good shape,
which is clearly not the case in Rarotonga.
It is not
logical that MMR on one hand acknowledges that the catch, not just in Rarotonga
but throughout the Cook Islands, has declined, but on the other hand maintains
that we still have these large stocks of fish.
If you rely
on catch to assess fish stocks, and the catch has fallen dramatically, then surely
you need to adjust your assessment of the size of that fish stock.
argument, that we are too far away for fishing in the Northern group to affect
the catch in Rarotonga has, to my knowledge, no scientific backing.
We are told
migratory tuna swim thousands of kilometres to the Northern group from
Indonesia, yet they can’t swim another 600 km to Rarotonga?
Where is the
tagging program or the genetic testing to show tuna in the Southern group are a
different tribe to those in the North?
can produce this, then this argument is pure speculation and no reliance should
be placed on it.
MMR’s argument that La Nina has had an impact on our declining catch, but not
that it is the only cause of the decline in catch. For example, if we look along
our eastern boundary, the islands of French Polynesia do not allow purse
seining or foreign long line boats. Their fish catch has not been similarly affected
by La Nina. Also, during the covid lockdown foreign fishing boats activity in
the whole region as well as in our waters, was reduced substantially. Even
though La Nina was in full swing, for several months during this period we had
a glut of tuna caught by our local fishermen with tuna being sold for as low as
$7 p kilo. This suggests the reduction in numbers of foreigh fishing boats did
have an effect on our catch. I have also checked and can find no corelation
between prior La Nina events and a decline in catches.
Nina is now over, we are now in El Nino, yet there is still no fish.
impact does La Nina have?
There is a
common misconception that all our tuna come from the seasonal migrations passing
through our waters each year.
This is used
to justify catching as much as we can, while they pass through our waters.
is no scientific proof for this argument and it should be treated as pure
alternative theory is that there is a resident stock of fish that remain in our
waters more or less permanently.
stock is reduced by fishing, then it is replenished by the seasonal migration.
accept this theory then what might be happening is that the resident stock has
been depleted by overfishing, and with La Nina the migratory stocks have passed
Polynesia may have avoided this by ensuring its resident stock was maintained
at a safe level regardless of La Nina events.
good news here is that if the migratory schools do return with El Nino and make
it past the armada of foreign fishing boats between Indonesia and here, our
resident stock may be replenished.
Do we rely
on this or does the remaining resident stock needs to be protected in the hope
that it will be able to spawn and recover over time.
There is one
more factor which I am concerned may have been a cause of the decline in catch.
fishing was justified on the basis, that there were huge schools of skipjack in
our waters which could be harvested without any negative impact on their stock,
or on the stock of other the fish that ate them.
In this case
however, they relied on satellite analysis to establish the existence of these
we were told the skipjack being targeted were adult fish of approximately 18
inches in length which had already spawned.
important because it meant there was always a breeding stock. What we were not told
was that the mesh at the business end of the purse seine nets was the same as a
New Zealand mullet net, catching much smaller sexually immature skipjack less
than 12 inches in length, before they spawn.
seining was also not meant to impact other species such as juvenile yellow fin
or big eye tuna, which normally school with juvenile skipjack.
juvenile yellow fin and big eye tend to be found in greater numbers in these
schools of smaller skipjack, so these species may be impacted as well.
countries have recognised this problem and forced the purse seiners to increase
the mesh size to protect these juvenile fish.
We allow it
to continue. MMR doesn’t give the public up to date information about the purse
seine catch, and the skipjack resource. I hope my article encourages MMR to do
the answer to the question as to what has caused the damage to our resource is
a mixture of overfishing a resource, combined with the impact of La Nina.
reason, MMR should be making decisions based on up to date science, and not
In my next
article I am going to review the consequences to the Cook Islands and its
people of the decline in our fisheries resource.
Retired lawyer Reuben Tylor
Born Dunedin, New Zealand, 1949. Primary and secondary
schooling in Cook Islands and New Zealand. Graduated BA (1971) and LlB (1973)
from Auckland University. Admitted as barrister and solicitor of NZ High Court
in 1974 and commenced employment with Chapman Tripp. Joined Short & Tylor
in 1975 in Cook Islands, (first private law firm in the Cook Islands).
Founded Southpac Trust Company Ltd in 1983, and Cook Islands
Trust Corporation in 1998, both as 50% shareholder.
Since 1987, principally engaged in providing legal services
to offshore industry.
Work has included development of various financial and
legislative products, most important of which was development of asset
protection legislation targeting the US market in late 1980s.
This was a world first, and the Cook Islands continues to
retain top position in this industry despite many countries (and even several
US states) copying our legislation.
Subsequent to developing this initial legislation, engaged
in marketing asset protection products for more than two decades.
During this period has been a guest speaker at a number of
international conferences in both the US and Europe, and has published numerous
articles on aspects of asset protection in international journals.
In 2002 founded New Zealand Trust & Investment
Corporation Ltd, a New Zealand trustee company, as 50% shareholder.
Developed new products into European marketplace, with
emphasis on application of tax treaties.
Responsible for marketing and development of new business.
In response to a number of problems within the offshore
industry, promoted the formation of the Financial Services Development
Authority as interface body between industry and Government. Appointed by
Minister of Finance as industry member.
Founded Trustees & Fiduciaries (Cook Islands) Ltd in