Cook Islands looking to explore seabed mining in efforts to restore economy after COVID-19 carnage

Tourism has returned to the Cook Islands with flights full and hotels chocka in a much-needed post-COVID-19 boost to the economy.

But Prime Minister Mark Brown has his eye on a new cash cow, one that may cause some friction in an otherwise friendly relationship with New Zealand.

The Cook Islands is reclaiming what COVID-19 stole as Kiwis flock to Rarotonagan beaches. 

"COVID-19 had a huge impact on our economy to the extent of dropping our economy, our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by 25 percent," Brown said. 

Brown met with Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta recently to warmly welcome Kiwis back, but there is one topic where the pair don’t quite see eye to eye: the mining of seabeds.

The Cook Islands Government has awarded three companies licences to explore its seafloor to see if mining expensive minerals like copper, cobalt and manganese are viable.

Minerals are useful for making things like wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles.

"At this moment the world is trying to transition to a green economy, the minerals and the metals that are required to enable this, exist in the nodules that we have in our ocean," Brown said. 

But environmentalists like marine scientist Teina Ronga are unconvinced.

"We are not in any place or any situation where we can take a risk with the ocean. The ocean is already dying because of climate change impacts," Ronga said. 

But Brown said the economic benefits will be game-changing

"This has the potential to match if not surpass the tourism industry that our country currently earns," he said. 

Pacific nations are divided. A Canadian company has just been approved to begin extracting thousands of tonnes of material in international waters of the Pacific - It was opposed by Palau, Samoa, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia. 

While Kiribati and Cook Islands are keen to explore mining in their domestic waters.

Regular Cook Islanders Newshub spoke to just want the best for their moana.

"For most of us who actually live here, it's about our waters, it's about nurturing and maintaining everything that's in there and that's all that we have," one local said. 

"We would rather it be left alone," another added. 

Mahuta has been under pressure at home to support a global moratorium on seabed mining

While there was no official comment on Friday, Mahuta offered assurances the environment comes first.

"We need to try and find out more about our oceans and the activities that impact on it," she said. 

Far beneath the waves could be the solutions to our environmental woes or more problems.