There’s been a lot of buzz on ‘the Rock’ (aka Rarotonga) and around the South Pacific lately about purse seine fishing. Purse seining is a method of fishing where a giant net is cast into deep water and ‘pursed’ (or closed) at the bottom, thereby catching anything and everything caught in its nets to be dragged onto the boat and back to shore.
Last night I went to a public consultation meeting put on by the Ministry of Marine Resources, who have been propositioned by the European Union to purse seine in the Cook’s EEZ for skipjack tuna. Skipjack tuna is widely bought and sold around the world in tins that appear on shelves in your supermarket – basically what you get when you have a tuna fish sandwich!
The Cook Islands, in particular the northern group, has huge quantities of skipjack tuna passing through their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a roughly 2 million square kilometre zone that covers a vast area of ocean from just below the equator (9 degrees) in the northern islands, to 22 degrees south of the equator down here in the southern Cooks. Although land area is small, the ocean area of the Cook Islands is enormous, and obviously a major natural resource that’s now being looked at more in-depth as a potential money-maker for the citizens of the Cooks.
Is purse seining a bad thing, destructive to our oceans, does it decimate large populations of fish, only to wreak total havoc on its predators? Maybe, but maybe not. Greenpeace says that it’s not purse seining that is inherently evil, it’s a combination of things that lead to what kind and how much bycatch is getting caught up with the intended species in the nets. In the Cook’s case, this would be yellowfin or bigeye tuna. Yellowfin and Bigeye tuna have longer life spans than skipjack, so their young tend to get caught in purse seines with not a lot of physical features that would distinguish them, thereby making it difficult for divers to release this bycatch and work to protect those types of tuna.
I could go on about the technicalities of this fishing technique, and expand upon the positives and negatives but I am really just learning about it. As an expat, my hope is for a cautious approach in signing any agreement with a far away nation. Sure, the money from the EU deal would possibly clear the country’s debt and hopefully bring new and improved resources to the northern islands, but when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and that was my gut feeling at the meeting last night. Coupled with a sense of urgency in signing the agreement by the Ministry, I have so many questions that need answering. What are the drawbacks of signing the agreement, and what are the benefits of saying no? Other islands around this region have said no, so why did they decide against this and is there something to learn from their decision?
One man from Mangaia stood up last night and said purse seining is already going on in the waters here, so why not get something tangible for it? Without a lot of resources to send patrol vessels out into the water, the EEZ is rife with illegal boats that are taking advantage of the skipjack population for their own benefit. His point was that it was about time the Cooks got their financial gain from it too.
Another woman from Manihiki stood up and said the skipjack tuna was ‘nothing’ to them, so why not get something for a resource that isn’t locally seen as the most precious? It’s true that I rarely, if ever, see skipjack for sale at the fish shop or used in local recipes. This is a fish the islanders don’t eat, and why would you when there is sashimi grade albacore and yellowfin available more often than not instead?
Alternatively, residents from the island of Mauke have been working on getting a petition signed by all of their residents vehemently opposing ratification of the EU agreement.
Whichever stance you take, it’s an undeniably exciting time in the Cooks and one that is full of possibilities like huge financial gains, being cutting-edge environmentally and sustainability-speaking, and most of all doing what is best for the people of the Cook Islands and their largest natural resource. It’s worth a closer look at all of the information and I’ll be staying abreast of the signing of this agreement and keep you informed of what direction it takes.
Feel free to contact me if you want any more information/links!
*All photos taken online.