Pacific Islands Forum Marks New Era in Marine Conservation

CI President Peter Seligmann and oceanographer Sylvia Earle during a Cook Islands diving trip preceding the Pacific Islands Forum.

CI CEO Peter Seligmann and oceanographer Sylvia Earle during a Cook Islands diving trip preceding the Pacific Islands Forum. (© CI/photo by Greg Stone)

I am on the plane returning from the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands. All I can say is “Wow.”

Thanks to the inspired leadership of CI’s newest board member, President Anote Tong of Kiribati, and strong support from the Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands, the Pacific Oceanscape is gaining traction. In fact, the Oceanscape has been officially adopted by the entire forum as an essential platform of their collaboration with each other and with their outside development partners, including Australia, the European Union, the World Bank, the U.N., China, the U.S., New Zealand and France.

These leaders have appointed one of their most distinguished and senior diplomats, Tuiloma Neroni Slade of Samoa as the commissioner of the Pacific Oceanscape and have created a Regional Ocean Alliance to provide support to the commission. CI has been asked to provide guidance and support.

On Monday, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands and I hosted the opening dinner of the Forum. There, Prime Minister Puna announced his nation’s commitment to create the 1.1 million square-kilometer (425,000-square mile) Cook Islands Marine Park. For one day this was the largest marine park in the world; however, on Tuesday the president of New Caledonia announced the creation of a 1.4 million square-kilometer (541,000 million square-mile) marine protected area. CI’s staff has played key roles in shaping and supporting both of these initiatives.

A highlight of the evening was our announcement of the Pacific Oceanscape Leadership Award to the Pacific Voyagers. Led by Tua Pittman of the Cook Islands and funded by Dieter Pullman of Germany, the Pacific Voyagers replicated the seven traditional sailing canoes, or va’as, that brought the Polynesian people across the Pacific. Crewed by hundreds of volunteer sailors (including CI’s Schannel van Dijken), the seven va’as have sailed across the Pacific these past two years, spreading the word of a shared history and future to these dispersed island nations. They inspired the Pacific peoples to work together. (Check out the sights and sounds of the Pacific in the video below.)

Seeing the enthusiasm of the Pacific Island leaders at this meeting has been exhilarating. The president of the Marshall Islands, the premier of Niue, the prime minister of Tuvalu and the president of Papua New Guinea all approached me after the evening to ask for assistance in designing major marine conservation commitments.

This is by far the largest conservation initiative we have ever embarked upon — all told, the Pacific Oceanscape spans an area covering 8% of the Earth’s surface. It is gaining speed at a remarkable rate, and we have an opportunity to achieve marine conservation at an unprecedented scale.

Of course there are challenges, including gathering adequate spatial information on the ocean’s fisheries, marine mammals, corals, minerals and fossil fuel deposits so that nations can make informed decisions about protection, conservation and management; developing the partnerships and deploying the technologies to support nations in enforcing their marine regulations; assisting in formulating policies that address economic development options; and facing pressures such as tourism, mining, oil and gas development.

Our staff in the Pacific Islands is extraordinary. Building upon the enthusiastic response to the Ocean Health Index, as well as our successes nearby in the Coral Triangle and Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, we are trusted partners. Most importantly, our work with both community and leadership is recognized and respected.

With the leadership of Beau Wrigley and our Ocean Health Council, Greg Stone and Sebastian Troeng and the Global Marine team, the amazing support of the Walton Family Foundation and the team of conservation leaders and practitioners in the Pacific led by Michael Donoghue and Sue Taei, we have the chance to support the exceptional leaders of these “giant ocean states” who are committed to protecting the ocean that has shaped their cultures, their families and their lives so that all humanity benefits.

Peter Seligmann

Peter Seligmann

To hear the leaders speak about the Pacific Oceanscape as their own vision gave us all hope that a new era in marine conservation is upon us.

Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.


  1. Renata Ferrari says

    This is great news, congratulations to all involved! It will be a challenge to adequately enforce and monitor 2.5 million square km, a task well suited for an organization like CI. The key to success lies in international collaboration between governments and industries.

  2. Tim Upham says

    The waters off the Cook Islands host marine life, such as the giant Queensland grouper, black cod, estuary cod, grey nurse sharks, leopard sharks, and wobbegong. Green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, and humpback whales. Seabirds such as terns, shearwaters, petrels, frigate birds, tropic birds, and boobies. Unique endemic birds such as the Rarotonga starling, Rarotonga monarch flycatcher, Cook Islands reed warbler, Mangaia kingfisher, Atiu swiftlet, and Cooks Islands fruit-dove.

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