Small island developing states, or SIDS, are maritime countries marked by small but growing populations, limited resources, and susceptibility to natural disasters. Although they are among the least responsible for climate change, they are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. Increased severity of storms threaten to damage their homes. Rising ocean temperatures bleach once vibrant corals, negatively impacting the abundance of valuable fish stocks. And, as sea levels rise, many residents will become climate refugees, forced to leave their homes in search of new places to live. For many of us, this is a distant and intangible threat; but for residents of the Cook Islands, this is a reality of daily life.
A Polynesian island nation with roughly 17,000 residents, the Cook Islands is comprised of 15 islands in the south Pacific Ocean. Although total land area is just under 240 square kilometers, its exclusive economic zone, or territorial waters, covers roughly 1.9 million square kilometers of open ocean. Cook Islanders have a deep affinity for the ocean, with many believing it is sacred, and rely heavily on the health of their surrounding waters – both tourism and fishing are two of the larger drivers of the local economy. And just recently, the Cook Islands government took a huge step forward in preserving their resources into the future.
Through our philanthropic collaborative Oceans 5, the Marae Moana Establishment Trust, a local organization of community environmentalists, traditional leaders, and community members from various islands, worked with government officials to enact legislation establishing the Marae Moana marine park to protect their waters from commercial exploitation. While the protections do not ban commercial fishing and resource extraction in the entire EEZ, it ensures they are done in a sustainable manner. In addition, the government instituted a no-fishing zone of 324,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of New Mexico. This bold action not only protects the Cook Islands waters from exploitation, but provides a buffer against climate change and allows reefs and fish populations to recover.
Prime Minister Henry Puna stated that the bill “aims to sustain our livelihoods by protecting species and ecosystems as well as our cultural heritage that we inherit and pass on to future generations.” The process, which began more than 5 years ago, started with extensive public outreach and was supported unanimously throughout the islands. Throughout that time period, the Waitt Foundation and LDF grantee Oceans 5 helped fund coral reef surveys to assess the health of nearby reef systems, helping to make the case for increased protections. The Marae Moana Council and Technical Advisory Group will continue to monitor the health of the adjacent waters and will coordinate with the Office of the Prime Minister in implementing the new legislation.
Despite its small size, the Cook Islands is making a big commitment to protect its people, its cultural heritage, and its vast ocean resources. As the effects of climate change continue to threaten SIDS and all nations around the world, the Cook Islands is a shining example of the proactive approach needed to combat these challenges.