This week here in the Cook Islands, leaders have arrived for the 43rd annual Pacific Islands Forum. While there’s lots of buzz about the two-day visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CI is more concerned with achieving significant progress for marine conservation in this critical region.
For many years, the island countries of the Pacific were widely perceived to have little global significance. However, the 16 members of the Pacific Islands Forum are discovering an increasing mana (pride) in the realisation that while they may be only small economies, they are in fact large ocean states, controlling huge areas of ocean.
For example, Kiribati — with a population of 102,000 — has an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) larger than India, and an ocean area over 4,000 times greater than its land area. The importance of these waters goes far beyond their value to the countries that own them; the Pacific Ocean plays a major role in regulating the Earth’s climate and contains many of the world’s remaining healthy coral reefs, as well as the largest populations of tuna and other migratory species.
Many of the Forum nations have already made impressive commitments to protecting their ocean and its marine life. The humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) currently cruising off the coast of Rarotonga are testament to the success that sound conservation policies can achieve.
At the beginning of last century, tens of thousands of whales graced Pacific Island waters each winter, but by the mid-1960s, poorly controlled hunting had reduced their numbers to only a few hundred. The species teetered on the brink of local extinction for two decades; then the Cook Islands became the first of several Pacific governments to employ domestic legislation to declare their EEZs as whale sanctuaries.
Now over 12 million square kilometers (4.6 million square miles) of the South Pacific are whale sanctuaries, populations are slowly recovering and their future is more secure. During whale season, the animals can now be seen from the shore every day.
This week, the Cook Islands are continuing to walk (or should that be swim?) the walk. Today, Prime Minister Henry Puna launched the largest marine park in history. This designation of more than 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of ocean and island ecosystems is a courageous initiative by a nation with a total land area 1.3 times the size of Washington, D.C.
CI has been working alongside the Cook Islands government on this project for 18 months. The Cook Islands Marine Park is one of the crown jewels of the Pacific Islands Program’s flagship initiative: the Pacific Oceanscape.
This integrated ocean and island conservation and management initiative covers an area of nearly 40 million square kilometers (15.4 million square miles), including all the Pacific Islands EEZs and the international waters, or “high seas,” surrounding them — an area larger than the moon and encompassing some 10% of the world’s oceans and 8% of the planet’s surface.
And the idea of protecting large swaths of ocean is catching on. Australia recently announced plans to create a Coral Sea protected area, and we are confidently expecting that other Pacific Island countries will follow suit with more exciting announcements involving vast tracts of ocean real estate.
In addition, the U.S. — which owns territories in the northern Phoenix Islands — is better placed than any other country with interests in the region to offer sound technical, political and financial support for the expansion of the present network of marine protected areas and to assist in the further progress of the Pacific Oceanscape. Let’s hope that Secretary Clinton seizes this opportunity to rise to the challenge and help to provide a more secure future for the ocean that unites the peoples of the Pacific.
Michael Donoghue is executive director of CI’s Pacific Islands program. Read more blogs from the Pacific Islands Forum.