Cook Islands to get pearl farming aid

The Cook Islands are hoping to once again be the pearl of the Pacific with the help of $3 million from New Zealand.

Pearl farming began in the 1980s in the Cook Islands and by 2000 the industry was worth $18m a year and accounted for 90 per cent of national exports.

A lack of regulation, poor farming practises and an unsustainable environment coupled with an outbreak of a bacterial disease that wiped out 85 percent of the oysters, saw that fall to an all time low of $1.2m in 2009.

Today, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, in Rarotonga on the third leg of his annual Pacific mission, announced New Zealand would put $3m over three years towards and public private partnership to restore the industry.

The money comes from within the $19m NZ Aid provides to the Cooks.

The pearl industry project, in collaboration with the Cook Islands Government, Bank of the Cook Islands and industry stakeholders, seeks to create sustainable increased production, expand markets and produce higher quality pearls.

The aim is for the industry to reach $6.1m by 2015.

McCully said revitalising the industry would have flow on benefits for the whole community, particularly the outlying areas where the pearls are produced.

"The programme build on research already carried out into the ongoing viability of Cook Island's marine resources and an initial investment into market research aimed at helping to effectively position the Cook Island's pearl industry internationally."

It was also a priority under the joint Commitment for Development signed today by McCully and Cook Prime Minister Henry Puna.

McCully leaves tomorrow morning for Niue and returns home in the evening.