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Part I Overview and main indicators

  1. Country brief
  2. General geographic and economic indicators
  3. FAO Fisheries statistics

Part II Narrative (2017)

  1. Production sector
    • Marine sub-sector
      • Catch profile
      • Landing sites
      • Fishing practices/systems
      • Main resources
      • Management applied to main fisheries
      • Fishing communities
    • Inland sub-sector
    • Aquaculture sub-sector
    • Recreational sub-sector
  2. Post-harvest sector
    • Fish utilization
    • Fish markets
  3. Socio-economic contribution of the fishery sector
    • Role of fisheries in the national economy
    • Trade
    • Food security
    • Employment
    • Rural development
  4. Trends, issues and development
    • Constraints and opportunities
    • Government and non-government sector policies and development strategies
    • Research, education and training
      • Research
      • Education and training
    • Foreign aid
  5. Institutional framework
  6. Legal framework
  7. Annexes
  8. References

Additional information

  1. FAO Thematic data bases
  2. Publications
  3. Meetings & News archive

Part I Overview and main indicators

Part I of the Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profile is compiled using the most up-to-date information available from the FAO Country briefs and Statistics programmes at the time of publication. The Country Brief and the FAO Fisheries Statistics provided in Part I may, however, have been prepared at different times, which would explain any inconsistencies.

Country brief

Cook Islands has a population of 21 000 (2016), a land area of 237 km2, a coastline of 419 km, and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.83 million km2. In 2015, the value of fish export excluding pearls was estimated at about USD 2.6 million. Estimated per capita consumption of fish amounted to about 59.6 kg in 2013.

Offshore fisheries in the EEZ of the Cook Islands are undertaken on an industrial scale by locally-based longline vessels, and to a limited degree by purse seine vessels registered in the USA. For the 2010-15 period, significant amounts (between 1 300 and 6 100 tonnes) of deep-water catches from the Indian Ocean by vessels flagged in the Cook Islands were reported to FAO. Coastal fishing is primarily carried out for subsistence purposes and for sales for local markets. In addition, there are some coastal fisheries that are export oriented: aquarium fish and trochus.

In 2015 2 trawlers, 12 longliners and 3 other fishing vessels were reported in addition to 261 undecked vessels. 423 people were reported as employed in fishing while 3 women and 2 men were reported as employed in aquaculture in 215.

The longline fisheries that operate in the vicinity of the Cook Islands EEZ are characterized by two sub-fleets. Vessels in the southern Cook Islands fishery, based out of Rarotonga are small-scale vessels, carrying out fresh fish operations to cater for domestic and international markets. These vessels target tuna and swordfish. Bycatch species are sold at local markets. Vessels operating in the northern fishery are based out of Pago Pago, American Samoa and concentrate fishing activities in the northern zone of the Cook Islands EEZ, targeting albacore for canning. The oceanographic features of the Cook Islands have important implications for tuna fishing.

Coastal fishing is carried out for mainly subsistence purposes – except in those places where there are markets (i.e. Rarotonga and to a lesser extent, Aitutaki) or relatively easy access to those markets (e.g. Palmerston). Fishing is mostly conducted from small outboard-powered craft and canoes in the lagoons and along the outer reef edge. There are also important small-scale fisheries that occur further offshore: fishing for tuna around fish aggregation devices (FADs) and fishing for flyingfish at night using lights and dip-nets.


The culture of black pearls is by far the most important aquaculture activity in the Cook Islands in value terms, although pearl culture is yet to be reflected in statistics. Starting in the 1980s, blacklip pearl oysters (Pinctada margaritifera) were cultured and seeded on Manihiki Islands to produce black pearls. Apart from pearl culture, aquaculture production in the Cook Islands is relatively small and limited to subsistence and semi-commercial production of tilapia, milkfish and clams. A few thousand of live giant clams are produced annually from hatchery in recent years for stock enhancement. Milkfish culture was tried in 2007 but it did not prosper. Aquaculture production in 2015 was 8 tonnes, including marine molluscs and tilapia.

Cook Islands is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the Convention on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas, and the Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean. Cook Islands is also a party to a number of treaties and agreements relating to the management of regional fisheries as follows.

  • The Treaty on Fisheries between the Governments of Certain Pacific Island States and the Government of the United States of America;
  • The Convention for Prohibition of Fishing with Long Driftnets in the South Pacific;
  • The Niue Treaty Agreement concerning Fisheries Surveillance and Law Enforcement in the South Pacific region;
  • Cook Islands is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency and the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Cook Islands has also ratified the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization Convention which has not yet entered into force.
General geographic and economic indicators

Table 1 - General Geographic and Economic Data – Cook Islands

Shelf area:

1 830 000 km²

Length of continental coastline: 120 km World by Map

Fisheries GDP (2014):

(Fishing and pearls)

6% National GDP SPC

Key statistics

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) area1 976 459km2VLIZ

Source: FAO Country Profile

FAO Fisheries statistics

Table 2 in this section is based on statistics prepared by the Statistics and Information Branch of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department and disseminated in 2016. The charts are based on the same source but these are automatically updated every year with the most recent disseminated statistics.

Table 2 — FAO fisheries statistics – Cook Islands

      1980 1990 2000 2010 2014 2015 2016
EMPLOYMENT (thousands) 0.21 0.015 0.43 0.43
  Aquaculture 0.007 0.005 0.005
  Capture 0.21 0.008 0.42 0.42
    Marine 0.21  …  … 0.008 0.42 0.42
FLEET(thousands vessels) 0.32 0.32 0.32
Source: FAO Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics
1) Due to roundings total may not sum up

Please note: Fishery statistical data here presented exclude the production for marine mammals, crocodiles, corals, sponges, pearls, mother-of-pearl and aquatic plants.


Updated 2017Part II Narrative

Part II of the Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profile provides supplementary information that is based on national and other sources and that is valid at the time of compilation (see update year above). References to these sources are provided as far as possible.

Production sector

Cook Islands is an archipelagic state comprising 15 widely scattered islands with a total land area of 237 sq. km., distributed in an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of over 1.8 million sq. km. The EEZ of the Cook Islands adjoins the zones of Niue, American Samoa, Tokelau, Kiribati, and French Polynesia. The islands form two groups: the Northern Cooks, all of which are atolls, and the Southern Cooks, which are mostly high islands.

Population dynamics in the Cook Islands have a large effect on fishing activities. From the turn of the century until 1971, the population of the Cook Islands showed a steady growth. From 1971 to 1976 the population dropped with the steady exodus of Cook Islanders to New Zealand in search of employment opportunities. This decline continues today and is most marked in the outer islands where the people move to Rarotonga or overseas (Pinca et al. 2009). The availability of willing labour places a major constraint on fishing industry development in the Cook Islands.

The land area and coastline of the country is quite small, and consequently the inshore fishery resources are quite limited in comparison to other Pacific Island countries. This is, however, balanced by a relatively large EEZ - the fifth largest in the Pacific Islands region.

Fisheries statistics can be presented in different forms, to cater for different purposes. In the statistics published by FAO (Part 1 above) the presentation follows international conventions and standards followed by FAO and its Member States for reporting catches which are given by the flag of the catching vessel. Accordingly, the fishery and aquaculture production of Cook Islands in 2014 published by FAO (as given in Part 1 and as of the releasing date1 of the Country Profile) was at 4 000 tonnes.

In Table 1 below the Cook Islands fishery production statistics include the catch by Cook Islands flagged vessels (as reported to FAO), the catch by canoes and skiffs in Cook Islands operated by Cook Islands nationals and catch from fishing activities in Cook Islands that do not involve a vessel (e.g. reef gleaning). The offshore category in the table is defined as the catch from Cook Islands flagged industrial-scale fishing operations that are carried out anywhere in the Pacific Ocean (i.e. inside or outside of the Cook Islands zone).

Table 3: Cook Islands Fisheries Production (as per FAO reporting standards2)






Cook Islands Flagged Offshore
Volume (tonnes) 12 tonnes and 52 000 pieces351502762 106



855 469 29 2971 328 1251 562 500n/a

The amounts of production given in the above table differ from that shown in Part 1. The table consists of production estimated from a variety of sources (see SPC study below); whereas the quantities reported in Part 1 are generally what is reported to FAO by the Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources.

The fishery statistics of the Cook Islands are presented in a different way from FAO in a recent study by the Pacific Community (SPC). The SPC study reports on the amount of catch in the Cook Islands EEZ, regardless of the vessels’ flag. In the study the catches are placed in different categories, which is useful for other purposes, such as the administration of the foreign fishing that occurs in the waters of Cook Islands. A summary of the fishery production from the SPC study is given in Table 2 below.

(1) Fishery Statistical collections are subject to a Quality Assurance process which in some situations may determine the figures revision.

(2) The international standards for production of fisheries statistics adopted by CWP – Coordination Working Party on Fisheries Statistics, in use by FAO

(3) The production of several important aquaculture products (e.g. pearls, giant clams) is measured in pieces rather than in weight.

Table 4: Fisheries Production in Cook Islands Waters










     Both Cook Islands and foreign flagged vessels
Volume (tonnes) 12 tonnes and 52 000 pieces6515027619420 342
Value (USD)855 469 29 2971 328 1251 562 5002 265 62557 153 854
Source: Gillett (2016)

Some comment is required to explain the difference between the information in this table and that of the above Part 1 of this profile:
  • Catches can be given by the flag of the catching vessel (as in the FAO statistics given in Part 1), or by the zone where the catch is made (the “offshore foreign based” and “offshore locally based” columns in the table above). These two different ways of allocating catch each have their purposes. Attribution by flag is important for consistency with international conventions, while attribution by zone is important for determining fishing contributions to GDP, and managing revenue from license fees for foreign fishing in a country’s zone.
  • There are two Cook Islands flagged mid-water trawl vessels that target orange roughy and alfonsino. These vessels fish in the southern Indian Ocean and offload their catches in Port Louis, Mauritius and Capetown, South Africa – and those catches were not included in the SPC study as they are made outside of the Pacific Ocean.
  • There is no fisheries statistical system covering the categories of freshwater fishing, aquaculture, and most of the coastal fishing. The estimates above were made by a study carried out by the Pacific Community in 2015 in which a large number of fishery and economic studies covering the last two decades were examined.
  • The aquaculture production in Table 2 includes non-food items, such as giant clams for the aquarium trade and pearls.

(4) In the SPC study offshore locally-based is the catch in Cook Islands waters from industrial-scale tuna fishing operations that (a) are based at a port in Cook Islands and (b) generally harvested more than 12 nautical miles offshore.

(5) Offshore foreign-based is the catch in the Cook Islands zone from catch from industrial-scale tuna fishing operations that are based at ports outside Cook Islands. Under international standardized System of National Accounts (SNA 2009), those catches do not contribute to the GDP of Cook Islands.

(6) The production of several important aquaculture products (e.g. pearls, giant clams) is measured in pieces rather than in weight.

Marine sub-sectorCatch profile

The marine sub-sector has two distinct components: offshore7 and coastal. The offshore catches in the Cook Islands zone are currently made by longline and purse seine vessels. The longline vessels are both locally and foreign based. The SPC study (Gillett 2016) gives the catches of the three components of the offshore fishing:
  • In recent years a domestic commercial fishing company has carried out offshore longlining with one or two Rarotonga-based longline vessels. In 2013 the one vessel offloaded 105 tonnes of fresh catch. In 2014 two longliners offloaded 194 tonnes of fresh catch.
  • Foreign-based longline vessels caught 7 949 tonnes and 7 577 tonnes in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
  • Purse seine vessels (all foreign-based) caught 8 338 tonnes and 12 765 tonnes in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The Cook Islands Offshore Fisheries Annual Report 2014 (OFD 2015) contains some information on trends in the offshore fisheries. The total longline fishery catch in the Cook Island zone in 2014 was the third highest catch on record for the Cook Islands. 55% of this catch was albacore, the target species of the longline fishery. The majority of the longline fishing activity was in the northern part of the zone. The total purse seine fishery was the second highest purse seine catch on record. Approximately 87% of the purse seine catch is skipjack tuna.

Longline catch rates of albacore measured in kilograms per 100 hooks, steadily declined since 2007 but have stabilised to some degree since 2012 at around 25 kg per hundred hooks. Catch rates for both bigeye and yellowfin tuna have fluctuated around 4kg per hundred hooks however in 2014 yellowfin CPUE increased rapidly. There is typically a strong seasonal trend evident throughout the calendar fishing year. In general, the first and fourth quarter catch rates and total longline catch remain the lowest during the year, with this period referred to as the off-season. The second and third quarter catches are the peak of the fishing season with catch rates of albacore ranging between 30 and 35 kg per hundred hooks.

The purse seine fishery targets surface-schooling tuna. In 2014, only vessels under the US Multilateral Treaty were licensed to operate in the Cook Islands. Those vessels had 550 days available for fishing during the year, of which 368 days were actually used.

The oceanographic features of the Cook Islands have important implications for tuna fishing. Bigelow (1997) reviewed the oceanography of the Cook Islands EEZ, with the major points given in Box 1:

Box 1: Oceanography of Cook Islands EEZ

  • Currents in the vicinity of the Cook Islands are highly variable in direction and rate, but are generally weak (~25 cm sec-1 or 0.5 knots);
  • The Cook Islands extend over a considerable north/south distance and the subsurface thermal structure indicates that longline catchability may vary across the area. In the northern area (5°-15°S) the 15°C isotherm is within 220m of the surface and the thermocline gradient is strong. In the southern area (15°-25°S), the 15°C isotherm is ~325m deep and the thermocline is diffuse;
  • Dissolved oxygen concentrations are generally high in the southern Cook Islands and should not limit the distribution of tuna. Yellowfin and bigeye catchability will be greater in northern areas compared to southern areas, due mainly to a shallower and steeper thermocline and low oxygen concentrations at depth.
  • Subsurface isotherms were ~50-100m shallower after the strong El Niño – Southern oscillation (ENSO) event in 1982. However, recent ENSO or La Niña events did not alter the subsurface thermal structure (or the data were possibly inadequate for the detection of such changes).
  • The primary and secondary productivity within oceanic waters near the Cook Islands are relatively low compared to high islands within the south Pacific.

(7) In this profile, “offshore” is defined as the area outside the zone normally frequented by small, usually undecked, coastal fishing vessels and is generally greater than 12 nautical miles from the nearest land.

Coastal fishing is primarily carried out for subsistence purposes and for sales for local markets. In addition, there are some coastal fisheries that are export oriented: aquarium fish and trochus. With respect to coastal fisheries statistics, currently the Ministry of Marine Resources only publishes estimates for the artisanal troll fishery. The SPC-supported artisanal tuna database shows that in 2014 there were 302 active artisanal vessels and the total pelagic fish catch by those vessels was estimated to be 219 tonnes, 53% of which was yellowfin (OFD 2015).

Estimating the catches of the other components of the coastal fisheries in the Cook Islands requires more speculation, mainly due to the lack of fisheries statistics. Table 3 gives the coastal catches estimated by the Asian Development Bank and SPC. Those studies made use of wide variety of information sources, including opinions of fishery specialists, export records, household income and expenditure studies, documentation of the Ministry of Marine Resources, and information on population changes in the country.

Table 5: Estimates of Cook Islands Coastal Fishery Production

Harvest SectorEstimate YearVolume (tonnes)






Source: Gillett (2016), Gillett (2009), Gillett and Lightfoot (2001)

The nominal drop in coastal subsistence production between 1999 and 2007 on the table above is likely to be due to better information becoming available rather than any major change in the fishery. Between those two years the MMR produced the Situation and Outlook report and the Statistics Office carried out a household income and expenditure survey.

Factors that influence coastal fishery production in the Cook Islands include the presence of fish aggregation devices, the movement of people between islands, overseas emigration, the availability of formal employment, outbreaks of ciguatera fish poisoning, and the cost of food alternatives. There are indications that the production from small-scale fisheries in the Cook Islands has probably fallen in recent years. The population in the predominantly fish-eating outer islands has decreased, while fish consumption in the expanding Rarotonga population is tempered by occasional outbreaks of ciguatera.
Landing sites

In the Cook Islands the only developed port is a small harbour at Avatiu on Rarotonga. The facilities at that port are very limited and become easily congested with shipping, visiting yachts and local fishing vessels. Penrhyn Island in the north has a rudimentary port with few facilities.

All landing of catch by the Cook Islands tuna longliners occurs either at Avatiu Harbour or (for the longliners fishing in the north of the zone) at Pago Pago, in neighbouring American Samoa. The purse seine tuna catch is all landed at locations outside the countries, mainly Pago Pago or transhipped to an Asian port.

Many small-scale commercial vessels also offload at Avatiu Harbour, as well as other locations in the Southern Group where there are small passages through the reef or blasted channels. Outside of Rarotonga, subsistence fishery landings occur at villages throughout the country, roughly in proportion to the distribution of the population.

In general terms, almost all the value of the offshore catch (estimated to be worth about USD 59.4 million) is landed outside the Cook Islands. All of the coastal catch (about USD 2.9 million) is landed in the country.
Fishing practices/systems

In 2014, the Cook Islands longline fleet consisted of fourteen vessels, of which twelve vessels were authorised to fish both within the Cook Islands EEZ and the high seas. The majority of these longline vessels were between 51 and 200 gross registered tonnes. (MMR 2015)

A total of thirty-four non-Cook Island flagged longline vessels were licensed to operate within the Cook Islands EEZ during 2014, of which only 24 vessels actually fished in the zone. The foreign flagged fishing in 2014 was undertaken by two Chinese companies, comprised of both Chinese and FSM flagged vessels that operate out of Pago Pago, American Samoa. (MMR 2015)

All of the purse seiners licensed to fish in the Cook Islands zone in 2014 were associated with the US Multi-Lateral Treaty. Those vessels are mainly based in Pago Pago, American Samoa. In 2015, the Cook Islands entered into purse seine bilateral agreements with Korea and New Zealand and that was the first year that purse seine fishing occurred outside the scope of the US Treaty (OFP 2016).

Coastal fishing is often carried out by modern methods such as trolling off the reef, and closer inshore, gillnetting, cast netting, and underwater spear fishing. Reef gleaning is very important.

An older document by the Ministry of Marine Resources, “Basic Information on the Marine Resources of the Cook Islands” (MMR 2000) remains a valid source of information on some of the important traditional small-scale fishing techniques of the Cook Islands:
  • Hook-and-line fishing is one of the oldest methods for catching fish. In the Pacific, traditional hook-and-line gear was made from natural materials: vines, coconut fibre or strong bark from trees were woven into thin fishing lines; hooks were made from strong wood (e.g. the roots of trees), bone, or shell; stones were used for weights. Over time, hook-and-line gear has changed to take advantage of modern materials. Examples include the use of monofilament for fishing line, stainless steel for hooks, and wood or plastic spools or mechanized fishing reels for storing the line.
  • Titomo is carried out while diving. The fisherman has a small baited hook attached to a short length of line (15 to 30 centimeters) on a rod of about one metre. Fishermen using this method target koperu (mackerel scad) at dawn or dusk, or small patuki (groupers). To catch mackerel scad a piece of coconut flesh is attached to a barbless hook. The fisherman uses chum (ground coconut flesh) to attract the fish and then offers the bait to the fish. Once the fish is hooked it is quickly flicked into a canoe.
  • Matira fishing method uses a two to five metre rod and is done either from boats or from the shore. Fishermen cast the line and keep the baited hook stationary or move it about. The lure is made of shell, feather, metal or plastic. Matira is carried out at any time of the day to catch small groupers, paoa, titiara (trevally) or at night to catch ku (squirrelfish)
  • Tiritiri targets predatory fish such as titiara, urua (trevally), angamea (snapper), mu (emperors) and groupers. The method uses only a handline and a baited hook.
  • Matau tamoe is generally used for catching large trevallies. Fishermen tie a thick line to a tree, then walk the line out over the reef. A hook is baited with live eel, to prevent other fish (such as small groupers and triggerfish) from eating the bait. The hook is placed somewhere soft (such as in a patch of soft coral) to stop it from shifting about with the swell and currents. The fisherman either waits or leaves the baited hook overnight and checks it in the morning.
  • Drop stone fishing uses a baited hook which is dropped to great depths to target deep-sea fish species such as groupers and snappers, and pelagic fish such as tuna, wahoo and marlin. Bait is usually mackerel scad, big eye scad or flying fish. Ground-up bait and a weight (usually a rock) is wrapped inside a leaf with a baited hook and tied with a slip-knot. The package is dropped over the side of the boat and lowered to the required depth and then the line is jerked upwards. The movement slips the knot and freeing the packet of leaves and ground bait.
  • Tavere is done on dark nights, generally when the seas are very calm. Fishers go out in canoes and troll (10 to 15 metres in length) rigged with three to five hooks attached directly to the main line. Uru tavake (bird feathers) or shiny white-strand rope (preferably nylon) are attached to the hooks. This type of fishing is similar to modern-day trolling but is done from canoes. The boat is paddled along the reef areas or as closed to reef as possible to catch squirrelfish.

Much of the small-scale tuna fishing around Rarotonga, and to a lesser extent the other islands, is in conjunction with fish aggregation devices (FADs). Fishermen rely on the FADs to hold tuna schools in set locations, allowing them to troll around the FADs to maximise their catch. In addition, mid-water fishing techniques are used to further increase the catch of larger tunas from around the FADs. Cook Islands fishermen have become very reliant on the FADs as part of their regular fishing practice. Box 2 gives further information on coastal FADs in the country.

Box 2: Coastal FADS in the Cook Islands

Since 2005 there have been numerous FADs deployed in various locations around the islands of the Cook Islands. Over the years there have been many FADs that were lost, with most for Rarotonga and Aitutaki having been been replaced. Off Rarotonga there are currently three shallow water FADs (250m from shore line) and five deep water (2 miles from shoreline). Aitutaki has a total of three deep water FADs (all of which were replaced this year) and Atiu has one deep-water FAD. The FADs are funded by Government and regional donors enabling opportunities for further cooperation. These include the formation of good working partnerships between beneficiaries, funding agencies and the Ministry of Marine Resources. The objectives of a FAD programme include: relieving pressure on the reef and lagoon, increasing catch thus reducing operation costs, improving safety at sea, assisting charter operation, sports fishing and tourism, and increasing food security. The Ministry of Marine Resources’ aim is to continue to provide and maintain a FAD deployment and maintenance programme, inform beneficiaries regularly of issues related to FADs, and to provide funding.
Source: modified from Hunter et al. (2013)

Flyingfish fishing is important in the Cook Islands – and the technique used is quite interesting. Gillett and Ianelli (1993) contains an account of the fishery which is still accurate today (Box 3). Catches up to 400 fish per boat per night are not uncommon. The short lifespan and fecundity characteristics of the fish makes it tolerant to harvest pressure (MMR 2010).

Box 3: Flyingfish Fishing in the Cook Islands

The catching of flyingfish at night is significant in the Cook Islands, especially Rarotonga. This commercial fishery developed from a traditional Polynesian technique in which palm frond torches and dip nets were used from outrigger canoes. Over the years the technique evolved, including the introduction of kerosene lanterns in the late 1940s to replace palm frond torches, the use of skiffs powered by outboard motors to replace paddled canoes, and the use of halogen lamps to replace kerosene lanterns.

Currently, small generators are used to power the fishing lights. A high-powered light is affixed to a helmet worn by the fisherman. This allows the fishermen to direct the light while still having use of both hands to manoeuvre the boat and manipulate the dipnet. The boats are specially designed so that the fisherman can stand in the bow section of the boat to facilitate scooping. Steering is accomplished by the use of an aviation-type "joystick" which may have an integrated throttle. The shape of the hulls is such that they turn easily yet have enough "V" shape to be comfortable in moderate seas. An important characteristic of these boats is that they can easily be used for other types of fishing.

Conditions for catching are better during hours of maximum darkness. That is, the fisherman's light is most effective at spotting and immobilizing fish if the moon is below the horizon and there is no twilight. Calm conditions are often better because it is easier to spot fish; if there is wind it is usually best to fish downwind or in the lee of an island. Scooping requires practice to become proficient and is done while the fish is in the water, usually not when fish take flight.

Main resources

Various tuna species make up the vast majority of the catch by offshore fishing in the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands Offshore Fisheries Annual Report (OFP 2015) gives the tuna species in the catch by gear type:
  • Albacore dominates the longline fishery, accounting for about 55% of the total catch in 2014. Yellowfin tuna comprised 25%, followed by bigeye tuna at 9%.
  • in 2014 87% of the purse seine catch was skipjack tuna. Yellowfin tuna comprised 6%, followed by bigeye tuna at 1%.
  • Tuna catches by small artisanal vessels are reported to be about 53% yellowfin.

In terms of status of the offshore resources, the four major species of tuna in the Cook Islands inter-mix freely with those of the neighboring countries in the western and central Pacific. Recent information from the Scientific Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC 2016) shows:
  • Skipjack: The stock is currently only moderately exploited and fishing mortality levels are sustainable.
  • Bigeye: Recent analysis indicates that overfishing is occurring for the bigeye tuna stock and that in order to reduce fishing mortality to that at maximum sustainable yield a large reduction in fishing mortality is required.
  • Yellowfin: The current total biomass and spawning biomass are higher than at levels associated with maximum sustainable yields. Therefore, yellowfin tuna is not considered to be in an overfished state.
  • South Pacific Albacore: There is no indication that current levels of catch are causing recruitment overfishing, particularly given the age selectivity of the fisheries. It should be noted that longline catch rates are declining, and catches over the last 10 years have been at historically high levels and are increasing.

With respect to the coastal resources, many species of finfish and invertebrates are found in the inshore marine areas of the Cook Islands. According to Passfield (1999), there are an estimated 200 species of algae, 600 species of fish, 390 species of molluscs, 200 species of crustacean, 70 species of echinoderms, and 120 species of corals. The most commonly exploited fish species in Rarotonga are surgeonfish, parrotfish, goatfish, squirrel fish, bulls-eyes, and small groupers.

FFA (1993) indicates that about 20 species of fish are important in the aquarium fish fishery. The flame angel (Centropyge loriculus) and red hawk (Neocirrhites armatus), are especially important due to their high value. These have been replaced in recent years by other schooling species caught at depth (e.g. fairy basslets Pseudanthias ventralis) as fish such as the flame angel are increasingly available at lower cost from other countries.

The trochus fishery is based on a single species, Trochus niloticus. This gastropod is not native to the Cook Islands, but was transplanted from Fiji in 1957.

In general, those fish and invertebrates species that are sought after and are located in areas readily accessible to many fishers tend to be heavily exploited or over-exploited.
Management applied to main fisheries

Tuna fisheries in the Cook Islands are managed on regional and national levels.
  • On the regional level, the Cook Islands is a member of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) that was established by the Convention for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The Cook Islands and the other 26 members of the commission enact tuna management measures at the annual WCPFC meeting. From the Cook Islands’ perspective, the two most important recent measures are: (1) the Conservation and Management Measure for South Pacific Albacore, and (2) the Conservation and Management Measure for Bigeye, Yellowfin and Skipjack Tuna in The Western and Central Pacific Ocean.
  • On the national level, the longline fishery is managed by the Large Pelagic Longline Fishery Plan (2014) and the Marine Resources (Large Pelagic Longline Fishery and Quota Management System) Regulations 2016, in which the total allowable catch for albacore has been set at 9 750 metric tonnes and for bigeye tuna 3 500 tonnes. There is also a maximum limit of 50 longline vessels licensed to fish within the Cook Islands EEZ at any one time.
  • Also on the national level, the purse seine fishery is managed by the Purse Seine Fishery Plan (2013). The major features of the plan are: (1) Establishment licensing arrangements that encourage fishing operations to provide greater benefits to Cook Islands, particularly through the landing, value adding and processing of fish in Cook Islands; (2) Limiting the size of the purse seine fleet in the fishery waters to avoid local depletion particularly of skipjack tuna and yellowfin tuna; and (3) Requiring the use of fishing gear and methods that reduce the impacts of fishing on non-target species;.

Management of the coastal marine environment has been practiced in the Cook Islands since the ancestors of the present Polynesian populations inhabited these islands. It has been important because of the small areas and limited resources available. Today, although the large majority of islands have plentiful supplies of most of their marine resources, there are some species that need to be managed to prevent population declines. Management is becoming even more important because of the economic, technological and environmental changes occurring as well as changes in the traditional use of marine resources. Income from fisheries is becoming increasingly important, as people have come to rely on cash for purchasing imported foods and goods. More efficient fishing gear (such as gill nets) means that more fish can be caught in less time; and with storing facilities such as freezers, a surplus of fish can be accumulated.

Traditional pre-contact societies of the Cook Islands had a complex system of marine and land tenure that allowed delineated and enforceable control over the use of land and sea. The customary prohibition known as a ra’ui was one example of such control. The elimination of customary ownership of the lagoon and sea under the Cook Islands Act 1915 took away the right of landowning units to impose enforceable controls, weakening management regimes in these areas, particularly on Rarotonga. Although in the past few decades there have been efforts to revive the ra’ui system predicated on respect for traditional authority rather than on the legal system (Tiraa 2006), the current success is limited – perhaps only at locations close to some resort hotels with there is effective surveillance (K.Passfield, per.com.).

In accordance with the Marine Resource Act 2005, a fishery can be declared a designated fishery if it is important to the national interest and requires management measures for ensuring sustainable use of the fishery resource. In practice, the island councils manage the fisheries inside 12 nautical miles, with the Ministry of Marine Resources assisting the councils in formulating and implementing fisheries management plans. Formal management plans have been prepared for important coastal fisheries, including those for parrotfish on Palmerston and for trochus on Aitutaki.

With respect to trochus, there is general recognition among fishery specialists in the Pacific Islands region that the Aitutaki trochus fishery in the Cook Islands is one of the best, if not the very best, managed of any coastal fishery in the rfegion. In fact, a detailed case study to document the success of that fishery was undertaken by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in the 1990s. Friedman and Pakoa (2007) provide some details of that management system: On Aitutaki, trochus are harvested only when there are sufficient numbers on reefs to ensure the quota can be reached sustainably, and harvests are valuable enough to warrant fishing. To ensure that harvesting is sustainable, the quota is set at 30 per cent of the estimated number of trochus in the size range 80–110 millimetres. This ensures that trochus are able to reproduce before they reach harvestable sizes, and very large trochus (with lower quality shell) remain as broodstock. Harvests began in 1981 and typically harvests have occurred once every one to two years.

On a different level, the Cook Islands Marine Park represents a type of management of the marine resources of the country. Announced at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in 2012, the park will cover an area twice the size of France and will include buffer zones around islands and possibly other areas of significance such as seamounts and special zones where tourism and carefully monitored fishing will be allowed. It is anticipated that in early 2017 the Marae Moana Bill 2018, the legislation underpinning the Cook Islands Marine Park, will be discussed in parliament. The bill states that its primary purpose is to protect and conserve the ecological, biodiversity, and heritage values of the Cook Islands marine environment. Additional purposes are to:
  • provide an integrated decision-making and management framework to coordinate the work of relevant agencies so as to effectively balance marine conservation with ecologically sustainable use of the marine environment and resources
  • allow ecologically sustainable use of the marine environment for purposes, including—
  • public enjoyment and appreciation:
  • public education about, and understanding of, the Marae Moana:
  • economic, recreational, and cultural activities:
  • research relating to its natural, social, economic, and cultural systems and values
  • encourage engagement in the protection and management of the marine environment by interested persons and groups, including the national and island governments, communities, Aronga Mana, business, and industry
  • assist in meeting the Cook Islands’ international responsibilities, in particular its responsibilities under the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Convention on the Conservation of Biological Diversity, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Management objectives

In general, all fisheries management objectives in the Cook Islands must conform to the Marine Resources Act 2005. The act states: “The principal objective of this Act and the Ministry of Marine Resources is to provide for the sustainable use of the living and non-living marine resources for the benefit of the people of the Cook Islands.”

The “primary management objectives” of the Large pelagic longline fishery plan (2014) and the Purse Seine Fishery Plan (2013) are essentially the same: a) To provide for the sustainable use of large pelagic fish resources for the benefit of the people of the Cook Islands; b) To ensure the long-term sustainability of the fishery; c) To mitigate the impact of fishing on non-target species; d) To develop and maintain the economic viability of the fishery and associated fishing industry, including the development of the Cook Islands domestic fleet and onshore processing in the Cook Islands; e) To ensure that the revenue and domestic benefits derived from the fishery are aligned with the value of the catch of albacore and bigeye tuna in the Cook Islands EEZ f) To ensure that Cook Islands meets its international environmental and fisheries obligations; g) To strengthen the exercise of Cook Islands sovereign rights and ensure that its special requirements as a Small Island Developing States are appropriately taken into account in regional tuna management, and position Cook Islands for equitable participation in the regional tuna fisheries; h) To protect traditional and small scale commercial inshore fishers; i) To protect the integrity of government revenue; and j) To fulfil the purposes and principles in the Marine Resources Act 2005

The objectives of coastal fisheries management in the country vary considerably between the various fisheries. In general, most fisheries are managed for the sustainability of the target resources and the viability of the fishery for food and/or income. The management objectives of some fisheries include the equitable distribution of benefits to the community (e.g. the Aitutaki trochus fishery)

Institutional arrangements

The main institution involved with fisheries management in the Cook Islands is the Ministry of Marine Resources. The Marine Resources Act 2005 states that the Ministry of Marine Resources has the principal function of, and authority for the conservation, management, and development of the living and non-living resources in the fishery waters. The Ministry of Marine Resources is described more fully in Section 8 below.
Fishing communities

The concept of “fishing communities” has limited applicability to the Cook Islands. Nearly all households, especially those away from Rarotonga, are involved in fishing activities. It could therefore be stated that most villages in the Cook Islands are “fishing communities”.
Inland sub-sector

The lack of large freshwater bodies in the Cook Islands results in the freshwater catches being extremely small. Catches are limited to:
  • Eels on Mitiaro
  • Six species of freshwater prawns where there are streams
  • Tilapia on a few islands

The annual freshwater fishery production in 2014 was estimated to be 5 tonnes, worth USD 37 500 (Gillett 2016).

There is no specific management of the small inland fishery sub-sector.
Aquaculture sub-sector

A recent SPC study discusses aquaculture in the Cook Islands (Gillett 2016). Currently the most significant type of aquaculture is pearl farming. Pearl production reached maximum production about 17 years ago. At its peak there were 81 farms with 2 million shells in the water, accounting for more than 90% of national exports and 20% of gross domestic product (MMR 2012). The production has since declined due to bacterial infection and a decline in prices in the global pearl market (Hambrey Consulting 2011). In 2014 there were about 10 active pearl farms, with a further 14 farms operating at a minimal level (Brown 2015).

According to the Cook Islands Pearl Authority, the annual benchmark surveys for pearl production were discontinued in 2010. Consequently, there is a wide range in current estimates of the number of saleable pearls produced annually and the associated value. For 2014 these ranged from 37 169 pearls (Brown 2015) to 56 000 pearls (MMR staff and a large pearl retailer). Cited 2014 prices to pearl farmers ranged from USD 12.97 (CIPA) to USD 16.63 (MMR staff). The official export statistics of the Cook Islands show USD284 000 worth of pearl exports, but as pointed out by several individuals associated with the pearl trade, only about half of the pearls are formally exported. The actual pearl export situation appears to be that most “non-exported” pearls are informally exported (i.e. hand-carried and undeclared) or sold to tourists who subsequently take them overseas. If 50,000 pearls worth USD15.63 per pearl to the farmers were produced in 2014, that equates to USD 781 250.

There were other types of aquaculture production in 2014. According to MMR staff this consisted of:
  • Tridacna clams: About 30 000 were produced during the year, of which 2 000 were exported (farm gate value USD 3.90/clam) with the non-exported clams being used for reef re-stocking.
  • Milkfish: Production is for both food and bait (USD 1.95/kg). 2014 production is estimated to be 10 tonnes worth USD 54 688.
  • Tilapia: A small amount of tilapia is reportedly being produced at one farm. Details of production are not readily available. Production was deemed to be 2 tonnes worth USD11 719 to the farmer.

From the above information, the SPC study (Gillett 2016) estimated that the 2014 Cook Islands aquaculture production was about 12 tonnes plus 52 000 pieces, worth USD855 469.

The management of aquaculture in the Cook Islands is stipulated in the Marine Resources Act 2005. The management provisions are covered in Part II, Section 7, which states:(1) The Queen’s Representative may by Order in Executive Council designate an aquaculture management area.(2) The Secretary, or where appropriate, a local authority, shall prepare an aquaculture management plan for such aquaculture management area.(3) Each aquaculture management plan shall:(a) identify the area to which the plan shall apply;(b) describe the status of aquaculture activities in the area;(c) specify management measures to be applied to ensure sustainable aquaculture;(d) specify the process for allocating and authorising participation in the area; and(e) address any other matter necessary for sustainable aquaculture.(4) The Secretary shall approve any aquaculture management plan prepared by a local authority in accordance with Subsection (2), and may not do so if it is inconsistent with the objectives, functions or authority in Section 3 or the principles and measures in Section 4 of this Act.

According to the Cook Islands Aquaculture Development Plan 2012–2016 (MMR and SPC 2012) the goals of aquaculture development in the Cook Islands are to promote aquaculture best practices to responsibly and sustainably:
  • enhance populations of selected aquatic resources
  • maintain food security
  • diversify income-generating opportunities particularly in the Outer Islands, and
  • supplement capture fisheries in Cook Islands

In terms of marketing the aquaculture production, most of the pearls are exported, either formally or informally (i.e. hand-carried by producers or by tourists). In 2014 about 7% of the giant clams were exported to the United States for the aquarium trade, with the remainder for local re-stocking purposes. The milkfish is for domestic food and for bait, while the tilapia is for domestic food.
Recreational sub-sector

The recreational sub-sector consists of local residents fishing for pleasure and over-seas tourists fishing from chartered commercial vessels, often referred to as game fishing. According to a study of game fishing in the Cook Islands (Witchman 2012):
  • Game fishing is distinguished from other artisanal and small-scale fishing by the fact that game fishing operators hire their fishing vessel out to visitors keen to score a billfish (swordfish, marline, sailfish) or large tuna (yellowfin, bigeye), or smaller game fish (dolphinfish, wahoo, albacore or skipjack tuna and barracuda, and sharks).
  • 19% of all fishers in the country are either recreational fishers or part-time subsistence fishers.
  • In 2012 the number of commercial “game fishing and fishing charter operations” on Rarotonga was 12 and on and Aitutaki there were 5.
  • The Cook Islands Game Fishing Club holds annual fishing competitions

A study on further developing the commercial game-fishing was carried out by SPC (Piquel and Blanc, 2009). The study concluded that there was potential to diversify the sport fishing opportunities on Rarotonga and to further develop it on Aitutaki. In particular, the report suggested that for Rarotonga, where current activities focus on big game fishing around FADs, that these activities could be diversified to include other fishing opportunities such as ultralight casting in Muri lagoon and medium and heavy casting and jigging close to reef passages, on the outer reef slope and around FADs.

Apart from the bonefish fishery in Aitutaki where there is a management plan for bonefish, there is no specific management of recreational fishing in the Cook Islands, but activities in the sub-sector must conform to the provisions of the fisheries and other legislation of the country.
Post-harvest sectorFish utilizationThe marketing and processing of the production of small-scale fisheries in the Cook Islands is not well-developed. Although some of the production from small-scale fishers on Rarotonga, especially the tuna and flyingfish, is sold through commercial channels, the majority of fish are consumed fresh or frozen by fishers and immediate families. Selling fish on the roadside is common, but an increasing amount is sold through trade stores. Very little fish and other seafoods taken in the small-scale fisheries are exported.

A number of attempts have been made to provide access to the Rarotonga market for outer island fishers. Fish collection and transportation schemes have been sponsored both by government and by private entrepreneurs, but have met with only very limited success. These projects have generally been constrained by unsuitable or erratic shipping services, and by inadequate catch handling facilities and procedures at the fishing sites. Nevertheless, refrigeration facilities exist on all the populated outer islands and frozen fish is sporadically sent to Rarotonga as gifts for family members, or for sale. Palmerston atoll in particular supplies substantial quantities of fish to the Rarotonga market on an opportunistic basis.

The above is applicable to the edible fishery products. Pearl culture and trochus collecting are associated with elaborate marketing arrangements. The black pearls are sold both in Rarotonga and overseas. Trochus shells are sold unprocessed to factories in Asia and Europe for the manufacture of mother-of-pearl buttons.

There are three types of marketing arrangements for tuna caught in the Cook Islands:
  • The longliners fishing in the north of the country deliver their albacore and other tuna directly (all frozen) to the canneries in Pago Pago, American Samoa, for canning. Most of the production is for the US market.
  • The Rarotonga-based longliners off-load in Avatiu Harbour. The current production is mainly for the domestic market, most of which is consumed by the booming tourism industry. In the past there were significant exports.
  • The purse seine tuna catch is all landed at locations outside the countries, mainly Pago Pago in American Samoa or transhipped to an Asian port.
Fish markets

On Rarotonga where the cash economy is well-developed there are both roadside sales of fish and sections of supermarkets and trade stores where local fish is sold. The one locally based longline company sometimes sells tuna and bycatch directly to restaurants and hotels, as do the smaller scale troll fishermen

In the outer islands where subsistence fishing prevails, there are no formal markets for fish – but informal sales often occur.
Socio-economic contribution of the fishery sector

A recent study by the SPC (Gillett 2016) attempted to quantify the fishery-related benefits received by the Cook Islands and other Pacific Island countries. The study gave the available information on the contribution of fishing to GDP, exports, government revenue, and employment. Unless otherwise noted, the information in this section is from that study. Role of fisheries in the national economy

The Statistics Office of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management makes the official estimate of the fishing contribution to the GDP of the Cook Islands. The SPC study examined the official methodology and, using its independent estimate of the value of fisheries production, re-estimated the fishing contribution.
  • The official contribution showed a 2014 fishing contribution to GDP of USD17.8 million, or 6% of GDP.
  • The contribution of fishing to GDP was re-estimated by the SPC study for the year 2014. It showed a contribution of USD3.0 million, or 1.0% of GDP.

In 2014 the Cook Islands received USD8.4 million as access fees for foreign fishing. According to the Cook Islands Government Quarterly Financial Report (MFEM 2015a) in fiscal year 2014/2015 the government’s “operating revenue” was USD74.1 million. Therefore the access fees for foreign fishing represented 11.4% of the operating revenue for fiscal year 2014/2015.

The official overseas trade statistics of the Cook Islands (MFEM 2015b) give the exports of the country, including the fishery exports (Table 4).

Table 6: Fishery Exports of the Cook Islands (USD thousands)

  2013 2014
Live fish 16 71
Fish fresh or chilled 212 82
Pearls 116 284
Pearl shells 40 0
All fishery exports 384 438
All exports 10 643 16 622
Fishery exports as a % of all exports 3.6% 2.6%
Source: (MFEM 2015b)

The above table is different from the FAO data for fishery exports given in Part 1 of this profile above: USD2 931 000 for 2014. The differences between the FAO data and the information provided by the country can be due to the inclusion or not of exports from all catch sources, such as transhipments, landings in ports outside of the Cook Islands, or Cook Islands flagged vessels.
Food security

Some of the older studies on fish consumption in the Cook Islands are as follows:
  • Preston (2000), using 1995 FAO data on production, imports, and exports, estimated the annual per capita fish consumption to be 63.2 kg.
  • MMR (2000) states that Cook Islanders consume, on average, 47.0 kg of seafood per person per year.
  • Passfield (1997) gives the annual per capita consumption of fish on Tongareva Island as 219.0 kg.

Bell et al. (2009) use information from household income and expenditure surveys (HIES) conducted between 2001 and 2006 to estimate patterns of fish consumption in Pacific Island countries. The HIES were designed to enumerate consumption based on both subsistence and cash acquisitions. For the whole of the Cook Islands the annual per capita fish consumption (whole weight equivalent) was 34.9 kg, of which 81% was fresh fish. For rural areas the figure for per capita consumption of fish was 60.9 kg, and for urban areas, 24.8 kg. Overall, Cook Islanders obtain about 35% of their animal protein from fish.

In the Cook Islands there has been a significant amount of work on fishery resource consumption on In scrutinizing the above table. The latest appears to be an investigation undertaken in September 2006 into the consumption of seafood and meat in Rarotonga (Moore 2006). Ninety households in Rarotonga were surveyed (with a questionnaire) using a random sampling method. The results showed a continual decline in average daily per capita fish consumption rates since 1989 from 318g in 1989 to 271g in 2001 and 176g in 20068 (on an annual basis: from 115.9 kg to 98.8 kg to 64.2 kg). Reasons for the decrease in finfish consumption were attributed to many factors such as ciguatera, marine protected areas, changes in the lifestyle of residents, and the high cost of finfish as opposed to meat products.

Two aspects affecting fish consumption on Rarotonga have emerged in recent years: ciguatera and tuna from longliners:
  • Several documents (e.g. Moore 2006, MMR 2008, MMR 2010) point to a decrease in fish consumption on Rarotonga. A study by Rongo and Van Woesik (2011) proposes that that an increase in ciguatera fish poisoning occurrence over the past two decades have discouraged local fish consumption. They estimate that 52% of Rarotongans have experienced ciguatera at least once in their lives.
  • A major change in fish consumption in Rarotonga since the early 2000s is the availability of fish from longliners. MMR (2008) states that the domestic market is estimated to absorb around 40 to 50 per cent of total catch from the longline vessels based in Rarotonga. In 2007, about 120 to 150 tonnes of whole fish equivalent was sold domestically to the hospitality industry and the local population on Rarotonga. Brown (2015) states that the domestic longliners put 90 tonnes and 171 tonnes of fish on the Rarotonga market in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

(8) In the text of the report it is not clear whether the per capita consumption is whole fish weight equivalent or food weight.


The Cook Islands 2011 Census of Population and Dwellings (Statistics Office 2011) contains a considerable amount of information on fisheries-related employment in the country. Overall, 42.4% of households in the Cook Islands participate in fishing or pearl farming. However, involvement with fishing appears to be declining. In 2011 57.6% of households had not engaged in any level of fishing activity whereas the previous census in 2006 showed 50.6% with no such activity.

The employment situation with respect to subsistence fishing is very different between Rarotonga and the outer islands:
  • An SPC survey on Mangaia indicates that almost all households (92%) are engaged in fisheries with an average of 1 to 2 fishermen or fisher women each. In total there are 309 fishers on Mangaia, including 148 women and 161 men fishers. One third (111) of all fishers are exclusive fin-fishing men and about another third (101) are exclusively invertebrate fisher women. The remaining fishers are basically doing both. (Kronen and Solomona 2008a)
  • A similar SPC survey on Rarotonga shows that less than half of all households (44%) are engaged in fisheries with an average of one fishermen or fisher women per every second household only. These figures also include sport fishers and households having a motorized boat used for weekend trolling outside the outer reef. About half (155) of all fishers are predominantly men targeting finfish, and only a very few women are specialized on finfish fishing only. About a quarter of the fishers (69) are exclusively invertebrate women fishers. The remaining fishers are basically doing both. (Kronen and Solomona 2008b)

The Forum Fisheries Agency has some unpublished data on employment in the Cook Islands that is related to the tuna industry. It indicates that in 2014 there were no local crew working on tuna vessels, but seven people were employed in “processing and ancillary”. In addition, there were five observers who worked on tuna vessels under national and regional programmes.
Rural development

According to the recent reports of the Ministry, the government believes that marine resources offer the best opportunity to increase employment and income in the Outer Islands. The Ministry’s efforts are focused on:
  • Assisting island councils in formulating and implementing fisheries management plans;
  • Sponsoring a national network of FADs to enhance food security and income by (a) maintaining FADS on a monthly basis, (b) maintaining FADS on Islands without fisheries offices on a six monthly basis, and (c) completing catch statistics and making catch reports available for the general public;
  • Providing support to pearl farming in the northern islands;
  • Carrying out resource assessments in support of commercial harvests and ra’ui areas; and,
  • Developing new commercial fisheries, such as that for deep-water snappers.

In addition to staff based in relatively developed Rarotonga and Aitutaki, the Ministry of Marine Resources has staff in relatively isolated locations: Atiu, Mangaia, Manihiki, Mauke, Mitiaro, Nassau, Palmerston, Penrhyn, Pukapuka and Rakahanga.
Trends, issues and developmentConstraints and opportunities

Some of the major constraints of the fisheries sector are:
  • Incidents of ciguatera fish poisoning on Rarotonga are high.
  • Rarotonga is a high cost location for operating longline tuna vessels.
  • Labour for industrial-scale tuna fishing is scarce and,considering population trends in the country, the domestic labour pool is not likely to grow in the foreseeable future.
  • Over-exploitation of marine resources close to areas of population concentration is growing problem.
  • The benefits of purse seining in the Cook Islands EEZ are constrained by concern over the condition of the bigeye resource - due to high incidence of setting on FADs in the Cook Islands zone.

The opportunities in the fisheries sector include:
  • Taking advantage of the booming tourism industry for sales of marine products/services at favourable prices (e.g. pearls, tuna, game-fishing)
  • Legislating for the use of traditional protected areas (ra’ui) as a fisheries management tool
  • Increasing tourism by clever marketing of the huge Cook Islands Marine Park
  • Taking advantage of the relatively high level of fisheries development and management skills in the Ministry of Marine Resources
  • Using the positive example of the benefits of fisheries management in Aitutaki to promote fisheries management in other areas of the country
Government and non-government sector policies and development strategies

The major policies and strategies of the Cook Islands Government’s Ministry of Marine Resources in the various fisheries subsector’s are: [source: http://www.mmr.gov.ck]
  • Offshore Fisheries Development: Expanded income earning opportunities from sustainably managed offshore fisheries through capacity building, and infrastructure and market development
  • Pearl Industry Rejuvenation: Profitable and sustainable pearl industry through improved productivity and environmental management.
  • Inshore Fisheries and Aquaculture Development: Improving income generating opportunities for the private sector particularly in the Outer Islands, through increased provision of technical and scientific assistance.
  • Food security and subsistence fisheries:   Ensuring sustainable fishing and conservation practices resulting in long-term food security and traditional subsistence practices.
  • Marine conservation, biodiversity and eco-tourism: Support the protection and conservation of natural marine biodiversity, it’s affiliated customary practices and knowledge and potential commercialisation such as marine eco-tourism.

The policies/strategies of the major NGO working in the fisheries sector, Te Ipukarea Society, are given in Section 8 below.
Research, education and trainingResearch

Historical fisheries research is given in the Cook Island Fisheries Bibliography (Gillett and Tearii, 1989) and in the Cook Islands Fisheries Resource Profiles (FFA 1993).

The Ministry of Marine Resources undertakes fisheries and aquaculture research in the Cook Islands. According to the Ministry’s website, current research deals with:
  • Pearl culture
  • Effectiveness of the ra’ui protected areas
  • Analysis of tuna catch and effort data
  • Outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish, ciguatera, and coral bleaching
  • Monitoring of key inshore fishery resources
  • Water quality of lagoons

The Ministry of Marine Resources currently has three Fisheries Officers stationed at the Araura (Aitutaki) Marine Research Centre. 

Conceptually, tuna research in Cook Islands can be thought of as occurring on three levels:
  • The collection of data by MMR, mainly through the requirement that all licensed vessels maintain and submit logbooks
  • Relatively simple compiling, processing, analyzing, interpreting, and presenting of Cook Islands tuna data by MMR
  • More complex sophisticated data analysis by the Oceanic Fisheries Programme (OFP) at SPC. This category is further divided into two sub-components: (a) Analysis of the Cook Islands data for presentation to MMR for national use, and (b) Combining the Cook Islands data with those of other Pacific Island countries to enable regional assessments by the OFP. An example of the end product of this process is the overview and status of stocks of tuna in the Pacific Islands region produced annually by OFP staff.
Education and trainingEducation related to fisheries in the Cook Islands is undertaken in a variety of institutions:
  • Academic training in biological, economic and other aspects of fisheries is given at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, and to a lesser extent at universities in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
  • Training courses, workshops and attachments are frequently organized by the regional organizations: the Pacific Community in New Caledonia and by the Forum Fisheries Agency in the Solomon Islands. The subject matter has included such diverse topics as fish quality grading, stock assessment, seaweed culture, fisheries surveillance, and on-vessel observing.
  • Courses and workshop are also given by NGOs and by bilateral donors.
Foreign aid

New Zealand is by far the largest donor of development assistance to the Cook Islands, the amount being reviewed annually by the New Zealand government. Direct assistance to development of the fisheries sector has historically flowed from a range of sources, including FAO, UNDP, UNCDF, EU, USAID, JICA, NZODA, AUSAID, ACIAR, FFA, SPC, and China. Projects have variously been concerned with the provision of shore-based plant and equipment (buildings, ice plants, aquaculture and mariculture research and training centres, fisheries stations), fishing vessel construction, research, fishery harbours, marketing, training, fish aggregation devices (FADs), and pearl farming equipment. In recent years much fisheries aid has been directed towards supporting the development of the pearl culture industry.

The largest donor project relating to fisheries in recent years was the Cook Islands Marine Resources Institutional Strengthening Project (CIMRIS). The main aim of the New Zealand-funded project was to build capacity to achieve sustainable management of marine resources. The project operated from 2006 until 2010. There were six sets of activities pursued, including building management capability in the Ministry of Marine Resources and strengthening existing institutions to take actions to improve lagoon water quality.
Institutional framework

Successive Cook Islands Governments have long considered the marine resources of the Cook Islands a priority for development. This was demonstrated by the formation of a Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) in 1984. It was the first government ministry in the Pacific Islands region dedicated to the fisheries sector, with most other countries' fisheries coming under the control of the Ministry responsible for agriculture. The formation of MMR was in part a response to the Law of the Sea Convention 1982, from which the Cook Islands anticipated substantial development opportunities (Passfield 1999).

The current Ministry of Marine Resources is responsible for the conservation, management and development of marine resources, both living and non-living, for the benefit of the people of the Cook Islands. 

According to the Ministry’s website (http://www.mmr.gov.ck) MMR is managed by a Secretary. It is headquartered at Rarotonga, but also maintains fisheries officers on the islands of Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Manihiki, Mauke, Mitiaro, Nassau, Palmerston, Penrhyn, Pukapuka and Rakahanga. It employs observers based in Apia, Samoa and New Zealand; and two staff at a Field Office in Pago Pago, American Samoa. The Ministry operates a pearl oyster hatchery at Penrhyn, a giant clam and trochus hatchery at Aitutaki, a marine laboratory at Manihiki and a chemistry and micro-biology laboratory at Rarotonga. As at 30 June 2016, the Ministry employed 61 staff in total. This is made up of 49 full time staff, 5 part-time and 7 service providers. Its annual appropriation as of June 2016 was USD1.1 million.The Ministry is structured into several divisions: Offshore Fisheries, Pearl Support, Inshore Fisheries and Aquaculture, Policy/Legislation, and Corporate Services. The main work of those divisions is:Offshore Fisheries
  • Expand income earning opportunities from sustainable offshore fisheries, through effective management, capacity building, and infrastructure and market development.
  • Enhance current monitoring control and surveillance capabilities ensuring Compliance with licence and access agreement conditions.
Pearl Industry Support and Environmental Management
  • Improve the quality and diversity of cultured black pearls and pearl products by better farm husbandry, improve access to financial support, mitigating environmental impacts, promoting research and development and wherever possible, strengthening local capacity.
  • Develop capacity in cross-cutting areas within the marine sector concerning environmental management, public health safety and food safety programs.
Inshore Fisheries and Aquaculture
  • Improve income generating opportunities for private sector particularly in the Outer Islands through increased provision of assistance to allow small scale fisheries opportunities and to develop new local commercial export fisheries.
  • Ensure safe, sustainable fishing and conservation practises, the protection of culture and tradition and long term food security.
 Policy and Legal Services
  • Ensure appropriate legal and policy frameworks governing the Ministry and marine resources sector are in place.
  • Ensure that all licensed vessels are properly registered and licensing register system is in place.
  • Provision of sound legal advice on issues emanating from MMR related activities.
Corporate Services
  • Ensure all management and financial decisions are informed and fiscally responsible and compliant with Government financial practices.
  • Provide excellent ICT infrastructure that caters for current and future trends whilst maintaining robust user policies
The major non-government organisation working in the fisheries sector is the Te Ipukarea Society (TIS). According to the society’s website (http://tiscookislands.org/), TIS is a proactive NGO formed to help look after the Cook Islands heritage. Their philosophy is “we do not own our land and marine resources but borrow them from our future generations, and need to leave them in good condition”. TIS is a collection of individuals and groups who desire a sustainable healthy and beautiful environment. Their main interactions with the fisheries sector are:
  • Year of the Coral Reef Campaign
  • Longline and purse seine fishing awareness campaign “Te Ki o to Tatou Moana ei Angai rai ia Tatou” (Our ocean of fish is for the sustenance and nourishment of our people)
  • Supporting and working with Cook Islands Whale Research, Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre, and Cook Islands Voyaging Society
  • Marine Park project management
  • Campaigning against the use of drifting FADs in the purse seine fishery because of the impact on bigeye tuna and other vulnerable bycatch species

Other associations with involvement in the fisheries sector are the Cook Islands Fishing Association, the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club, and the Manihiki Pearl Farmer’s Association.

Some of the important internet links for external partners in fisheries in the Cook Islands are:

The major regional institutions involved with fisheries are the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), located in Honiara and the Pacific Community (SPC) in Noumea. Other players are the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) Office in Majuro, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) in Suva, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in Apia, and the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva. The various characteristics of those institutions are given in Table 5.

Table 7: Pacific Island Regional Organizations Involved in Fisheries

  FFA SPC Other Regional Organizations with Fishery Involvement
Main area of emphasis Providing management advice on tuna fisheries and increasing benefits to PICs from tuna fishing activities. Most aspects of coastal fisheries and scientific research on tuna. Fisheries are only one aspect of the work programme of SPC, which also covers such issues as health, demography, and agriculture.

PNA – A sub-regional grouping of countries where most of the purse seining occurs;

SPREP – Environmental aspects of fisheries;

USP – The School of Marine Studies (SMS) is involved in a wide range of training;

PIFS – Major political initiatives, some natural resource economics; leading the trade negotiations with the EU, which has a major fisheries component.

Inter-regional Relationships

The FFA/SPC relationship has had ups/downs over the years. There was much bickering/waste in early 1990s, tremendous improvement in mid/late 1990s.

An annual colloquium has helped the relationship. The staff who have moved between the two organisations have made a noticeable improvement in understanding.

Much of the success/benefits achieved by FFA/SPC cooperation depends on the personalities of FFA’s Director/Deputy and SPC’s Director of the Division of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems.

At least in theory, all regional organizations come under the umbrella of PIFS. Activities of the regional organisations are coordinated to some degree by the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP) which has a Marine Sector Working Group that meets at least once per year, but is limited by lack of resources for follow-up.

FFA originally provided secretariat services to the PNA, but the PNA broke away from FFA in 2010. Currently, there are some sensitivities in the relationship – but it appears to be improving.

Main strengths Direct contact with its governing body many times per year results in a high degree of accountability. Mandate of tight focus on tuna eliminates considerable dissipation of effort. Due to Noumea being a pleasant place there is considerable staff continuity. The Oceanic Fisheries Programme often sets the standard for tuna research in the world. Documentation of work is very good.

Because PIFS is under the national leaders, it is considered the premier regional organization.

PNA has achieved considerable success and credibility in such areas as raising access fees, 100% observer coverage, eco-certification, high seas closures, and controls on FADs.

USP is centrally located in the region and the SMS has substantial infrastructure.

SPREP has close ties to the NGOs active in the marine sector.

Membership Australia and New Zealand, plus Cooks, FSM, Fiji Kiribati, Marshalls, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, PNG, Samoa, Solomons, Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu Includes the major metropolitan countries, all Pacific Island territories, and the French/UK/US territories; The most inclusive of any regional organisation.

PNA: Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

USP: Cook Is, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshalls, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomons, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

SPREP: 21 Pacific island countries and territories, plus Australia, France, New Zealand, and USA.

PIFS: same as FFA

Source: adapted from Gillett (2014)

The Convention on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean entered into force in June 2004, and established the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). The Cook Islands is a member of the commission, along with 26 other countries. The WCPFC has its headquarters in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, and has held 13 annual meetings to date.

Legal framework

The main fisheries law of the Cook Islands is the Marine Resources Act 2005. This is a 56-page document containing ten parts:Part 1: fisheries conservation, management and developmentPart 2: fishing and related activitiesPart 3: conservation measuresPart 4: licensingPart 5: monitoring, control and surveillancePart 6: jurisdiction and evidencePart 7: sale, release and forfeiture of retained propertyPart 8: miscellaneousPart 9: regulationsPart 10: general

Some of the important and distinguishing features of the Act include the following provisions:

Authority: The Ministry of Marine Resources has the principal function of, and authority for the conservation, management, development of the living and non-living resources.

Designated fisheries and management plans: The Executive Council can declare a fishery as a designated fishery where, having regard to scientific, social, economic, environmental and other relevant considerations, it is determined that such fishery: (a) is important to the national interest; and (b) requires management measures for ensuring sustainable use of the fishery resource. A fishery plan for the management of each designated fishery in the fishery waters is to be prepared by the Secretary, and kept under review. (3) Each fishery plan shall:
  • identify the fishery;
  • describe the status of the fishery;
  • specify management measures to be applied to the fishery;
  • specify the process for the allocation of any fishing rights provided for in the fishery plan;
  • make provision in relation to any other matter necessary for sustainable use of fishery resources.
The management measures in such plans have the full force and effect of regulations promulgated under the Act.

Aquaculture Management Areas: The Executive Council can designate an area as an aquaculture management area where, having regard to scientific, social, economic, environmental and other relevant considerations, it is determined that aquaculture activities in the area - (a) are important to the national interest; and (b) require management measures for ensuring sustainability. The Secretary, or where appropriate, a local authority, shall prepare an aquaculture management plan for such aquaculture management area. Each aquaculture management plan shall:
  • identify the area to which the plan shall apply
  • describe the status of aquaculture activities in the area;
  • specify management measures to be applied to ensure sustainable aquaculture in the area;
  • specify the process for allocating and authorizing participation in aquaculture activity in the area; and
  • make provision in relation to any other matter necessary for sustainable aquaculture.

Conservation, management and development of fisheries of local interest by Local authorities: A local authority may take measures for the conservation, management and development of any fishery of local interest or aquaculture within its area of authority in accordance with the principles and provisions of the Act including preparation of (a) a fishery plan in cooperation with the Ministry; and (b) where no fishery plan exists, by-laws for promulgation by the Queen’s Representative.

Fishing rights: - Any fishery plan may provide for the allocation by the Secretary of fishing rights within the following class of rights:
  • A right to take a particular quantity of fish, or to take a particular quantity of fish of a particular species or type, or a proportion of fishing capacity, from, or from a particular area in, a designated fishery;
  • A right to engage in fishing in a designated fishery at a particular time or times, on a particular number of days, during a particular number of weeks or months, or in accordance with any combination of the above, during a particular period or periods;
  • A right to use a boat or particular type of vessel, or a particular size of vessel, or a boat having a particular engine power, in a designated fishery;
  • A right to use a particular fishing method or equipment in a designated fishery;
  • any other right in respect of fishing in a designated fishery

In January 2017 a draft fisheries bill to replace the above 2005 Act was under discussion in parliament. Although many parts of the bill are similar to the 2005 Act, a major change is to move towards using a quota management system for management of the longline fishery.


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