Consultation and compromise

The project went through several iterations. Iro’s initial idea was to create a marine park across the southern half of the country’s EEZ. But when the consultation team traveled to the isolated “northern group” of six islands — famously getting stuck on one for more than a month as they waited for the next boat — they found that communities there wanted the park to include the entire EEZ.

The northern group harbors some of the country’s most important fisheries, and is more difficult to manage and monitor because of its isolation. There, people complained that while there was supposed to be a 12-nautical-mile (22-kilometer) exclusion zone for commercial fishing vessels around each island, they sometimes saw the lights of fishing boats at night, which would only be possible if the boats were closer to shore than that. They hoped that Marae Moana would help them better track and hold to account any infringements of the limit.

Most of the country’s communities were keen to expand the exclusion zones to 100 nautical miles (185 kilometers) around each island, and this request formed part of the initial bill. But many government ministers preferred a limit of only 24 nautical miles (44 kilometers) to appeal to commercial fishing operations. So after a number of failed attempts to get the bill through the Cabinet, a compromise was reached, and the exclusion zones were expanded to 50 nautical miles (93 kilometers) around each island. Within these zones, artisanal and subsistence fishing is still permitted — except in areas designated as ra’ui (no-take zones) by traditional leaders. So far, the commercial fishers appear to be honoring the new limits.

The Cook Islands’ only patrol boat at dock in Avatiu Harbor, Rarotonga. Enforcement of the Marae Moana protected area, which is roughly the size of Mexico, could pose a challenge, although the country receives substantial assistance from New Zealand and Australian vessels and collaborates with neighboring Pacific island nations to implement maritime law. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

There were other compromises. Some Marae Moana advocates wanted to take the possibility of seabed mining off the table. Six kilometers (3.7 miles) down, on the deep ocean seabed, there are areas containing large amounts of manganese nodules. The mineral is currently irreplaceable in steel production, and used widely in newer-generation batteries, such as those in electric cars. But mining these minerals, by scraping the seafloor for mineral deposits, would likely be extremely damaging to deep-sea ecosystems.

However, there was significant support within the government for pursuing the possibility of seabed mining, and it proved impossible to get the bill over the line without allowing for that. Any mining activity would theoretically be constrained by Marae Moana’s overarching criteria of “protection and conservation,” and could only take place in specific areas where the impact to biodiversity would be limited.

But many Cook Islands conservationists are concerned that there’s not nearly enough information available to determine wherethose areas might be — if they even exist. “We’re not saying no to seabed mining,” said Kelvin Passfield, tecnical director of TIS; “we’re just saying we have to be very very about proceeding with it, and it depends on more information than we’ve got now.”

Watered down, or a serious sea change?

Now that Marae Moana is on the books and in the process of being implemented, Passfield and many others involved in crafting the act are wondering just how effective it will ultimately be at protecting the Cook Islands’ waters.

Historically, the government has often been accused of acting unilaterally and failing to take community perspectives into account. For many Cook Islanders, July 2015 stands out as a prime example. That year, there was a marked increase in the presence of purse seiners (fishing boats that use giant nets that draw together at the top and bottom like the strings of a purse) in Cook Islands waters. The seiners are licensed to target skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). But when they deploy sonar FADs, they attract and catch lots of other creatures whose stocks are less resilient, such as juvenile yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) and bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus), as well as sharks, rays, turtles, whales and dolphins.

So in July that year, TIS initiated a street protest drawing attention to the issues, and 4,136 people — half of the Cook Islands’ voting population — signed a petition to ban purse seining. But the government dismissed the civil action and continued to negotiate new licenses for the vessels. These days, said Passfield, when issues arise about consultation and transparency, “a lot of people … still bring up the purse seining as an example of the government not listening to the people.”

A scene from a July, 2015, protest against foreign tuna fishing vessels known as purse seiners operating in Cook Island waters. Image courtesy of Te Ipukarea Society.

Marae Moana aimed to change that. One of the first steps in its implementation was the establishment of a high-level decision-making council and a technical advisory group (TAG) to inform it, both of which comprise government officials, traditional leaders, and representatives from NGOs and civil society. Pamela Maru, head of the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR), said the TAG’s formation has pushed the ministry to work harder on cooperating with other agencies and groups, and sharing the process with the rest of the population. She acknowledged that the ministry has not historically been great at sharing what it’s doing.

Now that any new initiatives concerning the ocean must pass through the TAG, Maru said MMR has been on a steep “learning curve” as to how to better share information with the communities concerned. “We are a small island,” she said, “but like any other country, it’s about encouraging those networks and relationships. And Marae Moana has really helped to provide a platform for that.”

Rakanui agreed that the act has helped to engage more stakeholders in decision making. “People are waking up,” he said. “Under the Marae Moana, everyone is coming together … The ariki [paramount chiefs] are very happy that now they can see what everybody’s doing.”

Some stakeholders are concerned, however, that since the act passed, decision making in marine management has not been as transparent or participatory as they hoped. Late last year, the government began consultations to revise the seabed minerals act, which would facilitate exploration for mining. Members of the TAG pushed for greater community consultation than was initially planned, and local NGOs Korero o te Orau and TIS submitted comprehensive feedback based on a legal opinion from a New Zealand specialist. The advice included upping the fines for environmental damage and establishing an independent authority for licensing.

But Passfield felt the final bill, passed in June, didn’t take their views sufficiently into account, with government officials picking only the bits they liked from the groups’ submission. While the government claims to have followed the NGOs’ feedback by setting up an independent authority to approve licenses for mining under the new bill, “it’s not really independent,” said Passfield, “because they’re appointed by the minister or by somebody who the minister appoints. So there’s always that connection back to the politics of it all.”

The parliamentary process was also a surprise to the NGOs, which assumed the bill would go to a select committee; instead, it was “rushed through” and passed by a narrow margin in just one sitting, said Passfield.

Kelvin Passfield, technical director of the local environmental NGO Te Ipukarea Society, and his granddaughter on the Matavera reef flat, Rarotonga. Image courtesy of Kelvin Passfield.

Community perspectives: what’s all that got to do with the price of fish?

Outside government, community support for Marae Moana is high, though not everyone is aware of how it works and what it means.

“I don’t really follow all that,” said artisanal fisherman Steven Kavana, known locally as Captain Moko. “Is it like a reserved area? Are they stopping us from fishing?” Kavana has fished for most of his life. In a modest dockside hut just north of touristy Muri Beach on Rarotonga’s east coast, he fillets fish, soaks it in soy sauce and sears it in a hot pan while he talks. He says the job’s gotten harder, which is strange to him because fewer people seem to be fishing around the island than ever before. “There’s fish out there, but it’s harder to find them and catch them,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s not like it was before.”

Steven Kavana, known locally as Captain Moko, prepares fish. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

While Marae Moana might not mean much to Moko, the impacts for Bill Williams, sitting smoking with his crew aboard his longliner at the Port of Avatiu, are extremely clear. Williams migrated here from Fiji in 2000 and began skippering and doing engineering work for Ocean Fresh, the country’s only local commercial fishing fleet — and the only company to regularly supply fish to the local market. “When they put us out 50 miles, it was a big burden on the company,” he said. “The amount of fuel we’ve got to burn to get out there and come back is huge. And we lose nearly twice the number of fishing days now [due to unfavorable weather] than we used to before.”

That means Ocean Fresh has had to increase its prices in order to cover expenses, he said. “Food is not cheap on these islands. We are the main suppliers for all the local hotels, and people are now complaining that the fish is too expensive. But what can we do?”

Williams has warned MMR and the TAG that if the business proves unsustainable with these limitations, they’ll have to sell the company. But the buyer would likely bring in their own workers from elsewhere — and could well decide to ship the fish overseas to more lucrative markets. “We employ about 20 local people,” he said. “With their families, you’re looking at about 60 or 80 people that depend on Ocean Fresh. So these are the people that will lose out in the end.” The TAG is considering creating an exception to the 50-mile limit for the company, given its special position as the only local operator. “But it’s been half a year now,” Williams said, “and nothing’s happened yet.”

Despite the challenge it poses for his livelihood, Williams still supports Marae Moana. “It’s good,” he said. “I like limiting the amount of people fishing and what kind of fishing they do.” He’s seen for himself the decrease in fish sizes. Two decades ago, the average weight for an albacore or longfin tuna (Thunnus alalunga) was about 30 kilos (66 pounds). Now, it’s around 18 to 20 kilos (40 to 44 pounds). Bigeye and yellowfin are smaller than before, too. “We still get some big ones, but not as many,” Williams said. “We get the numbers, but not the size.”

A voice for the ocean

Williams was quick to point out that Marae Moana is only one piece of the puzzle. Migratory fish stocks like tuna don’t care much for national boundaries, so his business is vulnerable to overfishing in other parts of the Pacific. To the east of the Cook Islands’ EEZ, sandwiched between Kiribati to the north and French Polynesia to the west, there’s a small section of ocean no country has claim to. “Heaps of boats just hang out there and catch what they want,” Williams said.

The architects of Marae Moana themselves acknowledge that even if the project can make good on its aim to manage the EEZ collaboratively and sustainably, that won’t be sufficient to protect the ocean. Marine scientist and environmental activist Jacqueline Evans worked closely with Iro on the campaign to pass the Marae Moana Act, and she now directs its coordination office.

“The Act is actually quite powerful,” Evans said, “but really, all of these actions like setting up protected areas and environmental impact assessments and so on are not enough, when nature is getting such a hammering globally.”

Marine scientist Jacqueline Evans, Prime Minister Henry Puna, House of Ariki president Travel Tou Ariki and rugby star Kevin Iro just after the Cook Islands government passed the Marae Moana Act establishing the country’s entire exclusive economic zone as a mixed-use marine protected area in 2017. Image courtesy of the Marae Moana Coordination Office.

That’s why she’s joined a rising tide of activists, academics and officials campaigning to grant the Pacific Ocean rights of its own. In April this year, Evans was one of six grassroots environmentalists to receive the international Goldman Prize for her contributions.“Our ocean is calling for help,” she said in her acceptance speech. “So just as people who are abused and under attack are afforded rights, we must also afford rights to the ocean.”

Prime Minister Henry Puna agrees. At the New York in 2017, he made an impassioned call for delegates to “fight for the rights of the ocean.” There, a voluntary initiative was adopted to draft an international convention on Pacific Ocean rights by 2020.

Moves like this have the potential to prompt a paradigm shift in how we legislate, manage and conceptualize the natural world. But for many Cook Islanders, the idea is anything but radical. “It fits in with all the old beliefs,” Evans said. “Ocean kinship: the idea that we’re all just part of one ecosystem; that we’re a piece of a wider picture.”

The highlands of Rarotonga provide a view of unbroken ocean surrounding the Cook Islands. The peak is known as Te Manga Rua. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Banner image: A fisherman at sunset on Rarotonga. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Monica Evans is a freelance writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand who specializes in environmental and community development issues. She has a master’s degree in development studies from Victoria University of Wellington. Find her at

Editor’s note 9/23/19: A caption in this article has been updated to clarify that the Cook Islands’ capacity for enforcing maritime law is bolstered by support and collaboration with other nations.

Update 9/30/19: In late September the Cook Islands’ government dismissed Jacqueline Evans as director of the Marae Moana coordination office, apparently because of her support for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining, according to stories in the Cook Islands News.

Correction 10/21/19: The original version of this story erroneously identified fish being prepared by Steven Kavana as barracuda. The story has been updated to omit this error.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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