The Cook Islands announced the creation of the world’s largest marine park at the opening of the Pacific Islands Forum on Tuesday, a vast swathe of ocean almost twice the size of France.
Prime Minister Henry Puna said the 1.065 million square kilometre (411,000 square mile) reserve “(is) the largest area in history by a single country for integrated ocean conservation and management”.
Puna said protecting the Pacific, one of the last pristine marine ecosystems, was the Cooks’ major contribution “to the well-being of not only our peoples, but also of humanity”.
“The marine park will provide the necessary framework to promote sustainable development by balancing economic growth interests such as tourism, fishing and deep sea mining with conserving core biodiversity in the ocean,” he said.
Australia announced in June that it was creating a network of marine parks covering 3.1 million square kilometres, more than a third of its territorial waters. However, they are dotted around its huge coastline.
The new Cook Islands protected zone will be the largest single marine park in the world, taking in the entire southern half of the nation’s waters.
The nation’s 15 islands have a combined land mass barely larger than Washington DC but its waters include environmentally valuable coral reefs, seagrass beds and fisheries.
Puna called on other Pacific island nations to follow the Cooks’ lead and create an enormous protected zone in the ocean.
Kiribati and Tokelau have already created large reserves, while the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia this week announced plans to set up a 1.4 million square kilometre park in the next two to three years.
Marea Hatziolos, the World Bank’s senior coastal and marine specialist, said the Cook Islands’ initiative was a win for both the environment and the country’s economy.
“There’s definitely an economic dimension to this, apart from protecting biodiversity,” she told AFP. “It allows small Pacific nations to generate revenue.”
She said the park would include a core area where all fishing was banned, as well as special zones where tourism and carefully monitored fishing were permitted, allowing commercially valuable species such as tuna to regenerate.
Hatziolos said the push to conserve large areas of the Pacific Ocean was gaining momentum, with small island nations leading the way.
“They understand the value of the Pacific Ocean to their future economic well-being,” she said.
“This is part of a strategy to capture the benefits of good stewardship – conservation and sustainability must go hand in hand.”