Secretary of the Cook Islands MMR calls for greater precaution in setting catch limits that support more resilient ecosystems.

Environmental factors, including climate change, are affecting catches for the Cook Islands local fishermen and more needs to be done to ensure Pacific tuna stocks remain healthy, says an official with the World Wildlife Fund(WWF).

In responding to questions by Cook Islands News regarding a recent shortage of fish on Rarotonga, WWF Western and Central Pacific Tuna programme manager Alfred “Bubba” Cook said he agreed with a government official that environmental factors “play a role in determining abundance, and, ultimately, fisheries success”. 

“We know that climate change is having a significant impact across the Pacific, causing changes in the distribution of stocks in addition to negative impacts on the marine ecosystem including coral bleaching and changing weather patterns,” Cook said. 

“Unfortunately, the long term impacts of climate change are largely unknown, which supports our call for greater precaution in setting catch limits that support more resilient ecosystems and the fisheries they support.” 

A current shortage of fresh fish on the island has been described by some as the worst in recent memory, with many local eateries unable to source supplies.

The frustration has made its way to social media, with many commentators laying the blame on foreign fleets, along with allegations of overfishing within the Cook Islands exclusive economic zone.

Responding to the situation, Secretary of the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) Pamela Maru refuted allegations of overfishing.

Maru said the low catches currently being reported by local fishermen were due to environmental conditions that play a major role in seasonal catch rates.

Regional tuna stocks, including locally popular species such as Albacore and Yellowfin, have been assessed as “not overfished” by regional observers, including the Forum Fisheries Agency, of which the Cook Islands is a member among most other Pacific Island states.

But Cook said challenges and threats still exist, such as the activities of longline fleets operated by distant water fishing nations operating well beyond their own borders.

With few fisheries observers aboard, he said it is easier for longliners targeting yellowfin and albacore in the South Pacific to engage in illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

Subsidies and transhipment at sea also have the potential to put stocks under stress.

Cook said while tuna stocks have been assessed as healthy “according to the best available science and the standards we have set for determining stock health”, more caution is needed when setting catch limits

“We believe that there should be a bigger buffer between the acceptable maximum limit and where we set our targets for the catch, which keeps more fish in the water for, for instance, domestic commercial fisheries and local food security.”

In 2020, the Cook Islands had 102 licenced vessels operating within its exclusive economic zone including 66 longliners and 19 purse seiners, which is a reduction from 120 the previous year.

The country collected an estimated $8.6 million (US$5.9 million) in fisheries revenue in 2020/21 – a reduction from $13.5 million (US$9.3 million) reported for the previous financial year.

In assessing fishing revenues for 2020 and beyond, the 2021-22 budget documents tabled in Parliament last month read: “Climatic conditions compounded by Covid-19 measures have affected fisheries revenue in the 2020/21 financial year.”

“Strong La Nina climatic conditions in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 resulted in a westward shift in the distribution of skipjack and tropical tuna stocks, and therefore a significant reduction in the demand for purchasing purse seine vessel days within the Cook Islands EEZ.”

According to the Forum Fisheries Agency’s (FFA) 2020 “Fishery report card”, $103 million (US$71.6 million) worth of tuna was caught in Cook Islands waters from 2017-2019, representing just under 2.5 per cent of total catch value amongst all 15 FFA states from the same period.

This story was produced by Emmanuel Samoglou, published at the Cook Islands News on 27 July 2021, reposted via PACNEWS.

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