Amidst the hype and excitement of the opening of the Rugby World Cup last week in Auckland, New Zealand, extraordinary commitments made by Pacific Island leaders for the protection of their ocean went almost unnoticed by the local media.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna announced that a marine park of over 1 million square kilometres (386,000 square miles — an area the size of Egypt) will be established in the southern Cooks; and Ulu Foua Toloa of Tokelau revealed that the waters of his islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) will be a sanctuary for whales, dolphins, turtles and sharks. Tokelau, a New Zealand territory with a population of about 1,200 people on three small atolls, has jurisdiction over an area of ocean larger than the United Kingdom.
My world atlas has a table of all the countries in the world, with the usual indicators of area, population, capital, currency, etc. One could be forgiven for thinking that Kiribati — whose area is listed as 717 square kilometres (277 square miles) — was of little significance in global conservation. But this tiny island nation is in fact a large ocean state, with an EEZ the size of Western Europe and the world’s second-largest marine protected area in the Phoenix Islands.
In fact, between them, the EEZs of the 16 nations of the Pacific Islands Forum cover 10 percent of the Earth’s surface, equivalent to four times the size of the Continental U.S.. The island nations of Oceania have a miniscule carbon footprint, but are the most critically impacted by climate change. Their waters play a critical role in modulating the planet’s atmosphere; every second breath we take is provided by the oceans.
It’s long overdue, perhaps, but the Pacific Island nations are finally providing an example to the world of a new model of ocean stewardship — one that places sustainability over short-term profits and has an emphasis on leaving a legacy for their grandchildren.
Oh, and watch out for the Pacific Island teams in the Rugby World Cup — just like their governments, they are going to be embarrassing some of the world’s bigger players in the next few weeks.
Michael Donoghue is the executive director of CI’s Pacific Islands program.