The Cook Islands recently concluded participation in the 17th annual Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Committee Ministers Meeting (FFC Ministerial) held from 6 – 7 August, conducted online for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The meeting, attended by Ministers representing Australia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa and Solomon Islands as well as senior officials from the Cook Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, focussed on the future work programme of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) via its strategic plan, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on the tuna fishery, the safety of fisheries observers and fishing vessel crew and ongoing prioritisation of regional responses to the impacts of climate change on tuna fisheries.
Said Cook Islands Head of Delegation and Secretary for Marine Resources (MMR), Ms Pamela Maru, “The Pacific Islands’ efforts to protect our nations against the catastrophic impacts of COVID19 demonstrate our effectiveness at facing challenges head on through swift and decisive action, including through comprehensive border closures. At the same time, however, it is important to acknowledge that those measures have not been without cost. Here in the Cook Islands rising unemployment levels, significantly reduced revenue generation prospects and the need for assistance from development partners is the reality we are now confronted with. The development of our tuna fisheries and their importance to the social, economic and development goals of our country have never been more pronounced, particularly in the face of a tourism industry that is now struggling to survive as a consequence of COVID-19 impacts.
MMR have for some years now worked consistently to protect the Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from illegal fishing, and employs a sophisticated monitoring system to detect unauthorised activity in the EEZ. The monitoring system enables MMR to investigate, catch and, on occasion, impound any vessel fishing illegally in our EEZ. MMR plays an integral part in surveillance of the Cook Islands’ maritime domain working closely with other domestic stakeholders including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration (MFAI), Cook Islands Police, the Ministry of Transport and Maritime Cook Islands while supported by bilateral partners including New Zealand, Australia, France and the United States as well as regional organisations including FFA, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) to uphold the integrity and security of the Cook Islands’ maritime borders including detecting and investigating essels engaged in transnational crime and other illegal activities. The versatility of MMR’s maritime surveillance monitoring systems, a combination of national and regional capabilities, on the water and from the air, has been successfully used to advise other Government Ministries, including outer island administrations, of any vessels within the vicinity of the islands, and to undertake risk assessments and real time contact tracing of vessel movements. As well, the Cook Islands is working with other FFA member countries to finalise regional COVID-19 operating protocols to manage the health and economic risks of COVID-19 in the fishing sector, for activities undertaken at sea and in ports in the Pacific. This work is expected to be completed by the end of August.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of the importance of the tuna fishery for our national economy and, importantly, the livelihoods of our people. Whilst ensuring and providing for business continuity through the pandemic and responding to its challenges, we must also ensure that we maintain the resilience and sustainability of our fisheries at the very core of our work, and continue to strengthen the work we have started through the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) on improving labour standards and the working conditions onboard fishing vessels,” continued Ms Maru.
These sentiments were echoed by Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Ms Tepaeru Herrmann: “The priority for Pacific governments at this time remains firmly focussed on COVID-19 preparedness and response. Related to this, however, is the critical work being undertaken within fisheries to ensure our island nations continue to maximise the value we extract from this most vital revenue stream now and into the future in a sustainable manner. For the Cook Islands, it is important to highlight that we have one of the best managed fisheries in the Pacific and, even more so, one of the most secure. The Cook Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is spread over 1.9 million square kilometres of ocean. While we undertake many of our own surveillance activities via the Maritime Unit of the Cook Islands Police and our Ministry of Marine Resources, we depend on the assistance of our international partners to further enhance the security of our EEZ. Within the context of COVID-19, this assistance has been limited to that from New Zealand at this time, which further strengthens an almost total maritime border closure that our Government has had in place since March 2020.”
Since March, the Cook Islands has restricted entry to all sea ports to freight, cargo and fuel vessels only, with strict protocols ensuring contactless offloading, refuelling and re-provisioning. There has been no public access to the Avatiu Wharf in Rarotonga since that time, and there is a strict no visitors to vessel/no shore leave policy in place for all crew. Fishing vessels, pleasure craft and cruise liners are all prohibited from entering any Cook Islands port, although the right to freedom of navigation in the Cook Islands EEZ remains in place consistent with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which the Cook Islands is Party.
Said Secretary for MMR Pamela Maru, “During the FFC Ministerial, Ministers noted that the pandemic has resulted in an increased risk of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing due to the limitations on the use of human observers and port inspections. It is important, therefore, that in seeking to uphold the Cook Islands’ national security and mitigate against the threat of COVID-19, we look towards the use of innovative methods and technologies for monitoring, control and surveillance. The use of our vessel monitoring system, the Pacific Maritime Security Programme (PMSP) and the FFA Aerial Surveillance Programme become all the more important in continuing and strengthening the Cook Islands capability to secure its maritime domain working closely with bilateral and regional partners.”
The Cook Islands lent its voice to calls from regional partners at the FFC Ministerial to ensure that COVID-19 economic impact forecasting and assessment continues in tandem with efforts to ensure the ongoing strengthening of vessel monitoring and compliance technology, noting that national level assessments will be an essential input to decision-making going forward. Additionally, the Cook Islands has supported and continues to support continuation of work to ensure on-going prioritization of regional responses to the impact of climate change on regional fisheries.
For further information regarding this release contact Ms Uirangi Bishop at the Ministry of Marine Resources on U.Bishop@mmr.gov.ck phone 28-721 or Ms Karopaerangi Ngatoko, Director International Affairs & Trade of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immmigration at Karopaerangi.firstname.lastname@example.org phone 29-347
(Source: Joint MMR MFAI Media Release: Cook Islands uphold regional maritime security via 17th annual Forum Fisheries Committee Ministers Meeting 10th August)