For Ocean Protection, Island Nations are Leading the Way

Faipule Foua Toloa, ulu (leader) of Tokelau, announced his islands’ designation of their waters as a sanctuary for marine mammals, turtles and sharks. (Photo: © Adrian Malloch)

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.



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  3. Matilda Hakansson says

    Hi! My name is Matilda and I’m a trainee at the fishery committee at the EU-parliament in Brussels. I’m doing a study about sea level rise in the Pacific and how it will affect the fisheries for PNA countries. I focus on how the EEZ will change with sea level rise and I’m trying to find out if shifting maritime boundaries are something that the politics discuss in Pacific countries..? And if they are concerned about this and might have a strategic plan for the future when it comes to fishery and adaptation?
    I wonder if you have any information that would be useful to me?

    Thank you for your help!
    Best regards,

  4. Sue Taei says

    HI Matilda

    This is an issue not resolved in our region or indeed the world. It has been recognized as a key priority the Pacific Islands Forum Leader’s Pacific Oceanscape Framework ( Action 1b) and there have been a range of international workshops and some papers written on this matter. This is concern that if states lose their reefs/islands due to sea level rise they will lose the basis for their EEZ claim. For most Pacific Island states the EEZ is one of the few sources of economic development eg tuna fishing. Some argue this would not happen, yet many developed countries with vulnerable islands are spending millions fortifying these…. You are welcome to contact me through the CI website and I would be happy to provide you with some information. Soifua, Sue Taei, CI Pacific Islands

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