Establishing Marae Moana will help provide food security and employment in Cook Islands. - Photos: Courtesy of Conservation International

The Cook Islands may not have much land area – less than 100 square miles across 15 islands – but the multiple-use marine park they just established is the largest in the world.

The Marae Moana marine park encompasses about 700,000 square miles of sea, including all of the Cook Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone. As initially proposed, the park would have covered just the southern half of Cook Islands’ EEZ but was expanded at the community’s request. The legislation passed by the Cook Islands Parliament also establishes marine protected areas around each of the 15 Cook Islands to protect them from large scale commercial fishing and seabed minerals activities. In total, Marae Moana protects an area larger than the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was expanded to 582,578 square miles in 2016.

In his statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Henry Puna pointed out that the Cook Islands’ commitment to integrated ocean conservation and management “from ridge to reef, and from reef to ocean” is the largest undertaken by a single country. Puna elaborated in a press release, explaining that while revenue from the fisheries is important, conservation is a higher priority.

The remote Pacific Island nation now has marine protections encompassing the entire Cook Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

“We recognize that the ocean not only brings us revenue in terms of fisheries and tourism and potentially seabed minerals, it also brings us clean air, clean water and clean food to nourish and sustain us,” he said. “We also recognize that every species living in our environment has a role to play, keeping our environment in balance and that our livelihood and the tourism industry, together with the food supplied by the ocean, depend on healthy ecosystems.”

Conservation International applauded the move in a press release quoting David Emmett, Senior Vice President of Conservation International’s Asia-Pacific Field Division. “Marae Moana is a unique, large scale Marine Protected Area that ensures protection of the marine environment whilst allowing for the sustainable development aspirations of Cook Islanders. By doing so, it empowers traditional knowledge and practice as a key basis for management. In short, Marae Moana is an unparalleled approach,” Emmett said.

Now that the 2017 Marae Moana Act has passed, next steps include establishing a coordination office and action plan.

“Marae” is a sacred communal meeting place where tribes gather to discuss tribal issues, while “Moana” is the ocean.

“We all must take care of it and it is imperative that those who live and exist, both within and beyond its boundaries, do recognize and respect its sanctity,” said Puna.