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How a Small Island Nation Is Working to Protect Its Ocean in the Face of Climate Change

The Cook Islands just created a marine preserve that's 7,000 times its land size.
The Island of Rarotonga, the largest island in the Cook Islands, is viewed from the air on August 30th, 2012.

The Island of Rarotonga, the largest island in the Cook Islands, is viewed from the air on August 30th, 2012.

The small Pacific nation of the Cook Islands passed legislation last week to create one of the world's largest ocean preserves. The preserve is named Marae Moana, which translates loosely to "sacred ocean" in the Maori language. It covers the entirety of the Cook Islands' Exclusive Economic Zone, which is the area that every ocean-facing nation owns off of its coasts, to which the country has certain sovereign rights. For the Cook Islands, that means about 700,000 square miles of sea, a size that dwarfs the country's land area of less than 100 square miles. The Cook Islands join several Pacific neighbors in establishing enormous marine parks around their relatively small lands.

Cook Islands officials expect activities such as fishing and deep-sea mining will be banned only in parts of Marae Moana. Supporters say the Marae Moana legislation helps turn a conventional—but flawed—idea on its head: Rather than starting with the presumption that a country's waters can be exploited, and that marine preserves are special designated areas, Marae Moana assumes that all of the Cook Islands' waters are protected, and places must be set aside for commercial activity.

"The Marae Moana is an overarching oceans policy, so that means that every government agency that has anything to do with the ocean has to come under that, has to adhere to all the Marae Moana principles," says Kevin Iro, a former professional rugby player who came up with the idea for the park five years ago and has worked for it since. "The highest environmental standards need to be adhered to."

Officials still need to determine what parts of the ocean will be zoned for different activities, and figure out how the government will enforce the Marae Moana Act. Officials have, however, established a ban on foreign fishing boats for 50 nautical miles around every island. (Traditional leaders had wanted 100 nautical miles protected off each of the Cook's 15 islands, while the Ministry of Marine Resources gunned for 24 nautical miles. The 50 nautical-mile figure represents a compromise.)

"The highest environmental standards need to be adhered to."

Foreign commercial fishing is a hot topic in the Cook Islands. The annual licensing fees that companies pay to the Ministry of Marine Resources are an important part of the economy, but local sustenance fishers blame foreigners for declining fish stocks, and some argue they aren't seeing enough money from the industry, which employs few locals. "We're really not a part of the fishing industry, which I think is ridiculous," Iro says. "We're just clipping the ticket, getting our 5, 10 percent commission."

Marine parks like Marae Moana provide an important means for small, developing island nations to mitigate the effects of climate change, as Sue Taei, a project manager for Conservation International, explained to Pacific Standard last year. Climate change tends to affect small island nations the most, accelerating land erosion and storms. Yet, because these countries don't contribute much to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, their pledge to emit fewer greenhouse gases doesn't amount to much. A marine preserve, however, can help islands protect the reef and ocean under their jurisdiction, which may help those ecosystems deal with the ocean acidification to come.

"This is a big deal for the Cook Islands in terms of meeting its own national aspirations of great stewardship of our overall environment, as well as doing our part in the meeting international goals," Elizabeth Wright-Koteka, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna's chief of staff, writes in an email.

Beyond environmental protection, Iro has another aspiration for Marae Moana: that it will inspire younger generations to invest in their home. Young Cook Islanders now often leave for universities and jobs overseas, but Iro hopes more will start to stay if they have a healthy ocean and elementary-school lessons on the cultural importance of the sea to the Cook Islands indigenous Maori. Maybe Marae Moana will help with Iro's goals for his own family. Iro is of Maori ancestry and lived abroad before returning to the islands to raise a family. Two of his children now live outside of the Cook Islands, two are still too young to live away from home, and two are older and work in the family business. In 2016, he told Pacific Standard, "If I can retain half, I'll be happy."