The crew of Royal New Zealand Air Force who made stopovers in Rarotonga last week met the Covid-19 criteria set for people entering the country.
Te Marae Ora health ministry provided clearance to crew after they proved residence in New Zealand for at least 30 days.
Ministry spokesperson Jaewynn McKay also said the crew were all wearing flying overalls with the sleeves down, gloves, face masks and ear defenders when they landed and exited the plane.
“This gear (excluding the ear defenders) is what they wore for the entire time they were off the aircraft excluding when they were in their hotel rooms,” she said.
“They practised physical distancing, maintaining a two metre distance from others and none of them had been outside NZ in the previous 30 days.”
The crew are part of Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P-3K2 Orion carrying out aerial surveillance over the exclusive economic zones of the Cook Islands and Niue.
There have been fears that illegal activities may be going undetected in Cook Islands waters following a lack of aerial surveillance in the past months due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Pamela Maru, the secretary of Marine Resources, says there is a range of vessel types present within the Cook Islands zone such as merchant vessels, recreational craft, as well as fishing vessels.
However Maru said the numbers of each vessel type changes throughout the year.
“Currently Ministry of Marine Resources is monitoring 54 vessels inside the EEZ. Of these 47 are fishing vessels licensed by Marine Resources. The remainder are fishing vessels and merchant vessels transiting through our EEZ. We also do not monitor the boats used or operated on each of the Cook Islands on our vessel monitoring system,” Maru said.
Maru said aerial surveillance activities were undertaken regularly in the Cook Islands zone, which complements integrated suite of monitoring, control and surveillance tools.
New Zealand along with other partners, such as Australia, France and the US provide surveillance assets to carry out these activities throughout the year, often coordinated with the local maritime patrol efforts.
But Maru said the Covid-19 had created some obvious challenges for the Cook Islands impacting the ability of the fisheries inspectors and observers from travelling to various ports.
“Our primary concern is ensuring the health and safety of inspectors, observers and vessel crews. We are also in the situation where our risk assessments have determined that in some cases, keeping observers on board fishing vessels is safer. As such, this additional effort to bolster surveillance activities is welcomed, and ensures we are able to back stop areas where Covid-19 is creating operational challenges.”
Maru said they would usually have fisheries officers participating in these flights, however not on this occasion.
Prior to surveillance operations, she said the ministry will also provide the Royal New Zealand Air Force with a flight plan of the priority areas, indicating areas of high risk or interest.
“This will include information from our satellite based vessel monitoring system (VMS) on vessel information, including location, course (direction) and speed, and any other relevant intelligence information that we may acquire from other government agencies or international networks.
“This information will enable the targeting of surveillance activities, by excluding those vessels that are there for legitimate reasons, and using tools such as aerial radar to identify if there are any vessels that may not be detected by the Vessel Monitoring System and any possible illegal activity.
“For example, we may request for surveillance over Suwarrow to gather information on recreational vessels that may be visiting the island or that may be in the vicinity.”
Maru also said they have also been maintaining watch over vessels that are near each of the outer islands to ensure there are no vessels berthing or visiting those islands, especially with the risk of Covid-19 transmission.