11 Jan 2017

Buffer zones for fishing disputed in Cook Islands

5:20 pm on 11 January 2017

Traditional leaders and environmentalists in the Cook Islands are accusing the government of reneging on a commitment to establish 93km buffer zones around all islands, closed to foreign fishing vessels, under the new Marae Moana Bill.

A school of yellow fin tuna encircled by a net

Yellowfin tuna inside a purse seine net Photo: Supplied / SPC

Currently, purse seiners are not permitted to fish within 44km of any island, while the buffer zone for longliners is 22km for all islands except Rarotonga, which has a 44km buffer.

The Ministry of Marine Resources has said it is concerned that expanding buffer zones to 93km would have limited benefits.

It said in comparison a 44km buffer would provide sufficient conservation benefits without creating congestion in legal fishing areas or making it more difficult to monitor foreign fishing vessels.

The Cook Islands marine patrol vessel, Te Kukupa

The Cook Islands marine patrol vessel, Te Kukupa Photo: RNZI / Mary Baines

But traditional leaders and the Te Ipukarea Society say government is placing the interests of foreign commercial fishing entities ahead of the Cook Islands people who regard the ocean as a prime food source.

Aronga mana had originally wanted a 185km protected area established and had made these views known at a meeting with Marae Moana and Ministry representatives late last year.

Manavaroa Mataiapo Phillip Nicholas says the ministry's most recent zone strategy goes against what the people of the Cook Islands want and what is good for the people of the country.

Cook Islanders march to decry the Prime Minister Henry Puna and his government's deal with the European Union on purse seine fishing.

Cook Islanders march to decry the Prime Minister Henry Puna and his government's deal with the European Union on purse seine fishing. Photo: Flo Syme Buchanan

Te Ipukarea Society director Kelvin Passfield says during the Marae Moana outer island consultations, 80 percent of those surveyed wanted an increase in buffer zones and most people talked actually wanted a total closure to foreign boats.

If adopted a 93km protection zone would apply to all commercial fishing boats but the MMR secretary Ben Ponia is also advocating a different set of rules for European Union purse seiners.

At a recent public meeting with EU representatives, Ponia said Spanish and French purse seiners would only have to stay 50 kilometres off of islands.

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