13 Feb 2024

Cook Islands 'entitled to look at possibility' of deep sea mining - Winston Peters

9:47 am on 13 February 2024
Cook Islands nodule field - photo taken within Cook Islands EEZ.

Cook Islands nodule field - photo taken within Cook Islands EEZ. Photo: Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters says the Cook Islands should have the freedom to investigate deep sea mining before being criticised.

Peters made the comment while in Rarotonga during his Pacific Mission last week.

"The reality is you're talking about massive, huge depths in the water, there aren't too many creatures that actually grow if you look at the weight of the water at that level," he said after being shown a presentation by the Cook Islands government on deep sea mining.

"A lot of the concerns that people might be expressing might be exaggerated given the reality."

The country is moving into its third year of the exploration phase. It allows three mining companies to explore the Cook Islands exclusive-economic zone (EEZ) to see if deep sea mining can go ahead without causing serious environmental harm - the measure needed to be satisfied to allow it to happen.

Prime Minister Mark Brown said the companies are at the stage of gathering environmental data. The next stage is determining what type of technology is needed to harvest the nodules from the deep ocean.

"And if we can bring them up to the surface in a way that ensures the protection of our ocean," Brown said.

Peters said deep sea mining is "seriously worth looking at".

"In the end you've got to ask yourself, 'so what are we talking about here? Who are these people shouting out no without knowing why they're saying that?'

"Can we give [the Cook Islands] the freedom before criticism, to investigate the potential and possibility, not just for the Cook Islands but for the Pacific.

"I think they're entitled to look at that possibility rather than have a whole lot of outsiders who have no effect and no care, who have never put a cent behind the Cook Islands, tell them what to do with tomorrow."

Mark Brown, left, and Winston Peters in Rarotonga. 8 February 2024

Mark Brown, left, and Winston Peters in Rarotonga. 8 February 2024 Photo: RNZ Pacific / Eleisha Foon

New Zealand's previous foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta backed a conditional moratorium on deep sea mining in international waters. This would not affect the Cook Islands which is doing work in its own jurisdiction.

However, in October 2022 when Mahuta visited the Cook Islands, Brown said: "I think it's fair to say as sovereign states that the navigating of our vaka might end up in a different place to New Zealand on this (deep sea mining) matter".

Mahuta at the time said rather than focusing on how the two countries might differ, there should instead be a focus on what they shared, which was protecting the oceans and the need for a science-based approach before deep-sea mining can occur.

'Protecting ecosystems essential' - NZ Greens

Meanwhile, one of the minor parties on New Zealand's opposition benches, the Greens, have slammed Peters comments.

Pacific People's spokesperson Teanau Tuiono - with both Cook Islands and New Zealand Māori heritage - said the health of the Pacific Ocean habitats and ecosystems should always go before the profits of international mining corporations.

He said deep sea mining had caused "irreversible damage to some of the world's most unique and least understood ecosystems".

With the Pacific facing existential challenges from climate change and biodiversity loss, Tuiono said, "New Zealand's focus must be on offering genuine support to empower our Pacific neighbours to tackle these crises".

"Protecting those ecosystems is essential for the health of our ocean, and our planet."