How to manage a vast marine protected area in the Pacific? Interview with Jacqueline Evans, Te Ipukarea Society

13 June 2014 | Article

In August 2012, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna, declared what was then the world’s largest marine park, encompassing the southern half of the country’s exclusive economic zone. The declaration covers 1.065 million square kilometres – an area more than twice the size of Papua New Guinea. 

The park will help conserve the region’s marine biodiversity, boosting local economic growth and preserving the health of the ocean globally.

Te Ipukarea Society, a non-government environment organisation and an IUCN Member, is on the Steering Committee of the Cook Islands Marine Park, along with government agencies and traditional leaders.

Jacqueline Evans is Te Ipukarea Society’s Project Manager for the Cook Islands Marine Park.

Many people may not have heard about Te Ipukarea Society, or even the Cook Islands itself. Can you provide some background about the organization and the country?

The Cook Islands is a nation of 15 islands scattered over more than 2 million square kilometres of the South Pacific Ocean. The Cook Islands lies between Fiji, Tonga and Samoa to the west and French Polynesia to the east. With only a small population of 18,000, the country’s main source of revenue is tourism.

Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) is a Cook Islands environmental NGO established in 1996 for promoting “the balance and harmony which should characterise the relationship of the Cook Islands people with other components of our environment.”

TIS aims to create environmental awareness, implement projects, and cooperate with similar organisations within the Cook Islands and throughout the world to promote conser vation and sustainable development. TIS is active in biodiversity conservation, waste management, ecologically sustainable development and the environmental education of youth. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2012, TIS co-sponsored a resolution Protection of the Deep Ocean Ecosystem and Biodiversity from the Threats of Seabed Mining.

Te Ipukarea Society is involved in the establishment of the Cook Islands Marine Park. What has the journey been like so far? What have been the main challenges, and how has Te Ipukarea Society helped address these?

The main challenge has been to develop, with government agencies, a marine park policy which details exactly how the marine park will function in relation to existing governance structures and existing resource management measures. This is something that will be addressed this year through consultation with key stakeholders. Already we have political support for the overall marine park concept throughout all the Cook Islands, including the support of traditional leaders and both sides of parliament. Now we need to discuss the details with government agencies that will be directly affected by the marine park. So far, three of the key government agencies are able to envision how their mandate can fit within the marine park framework. One agency needs to be further consulted on how they envision the marine park and their role within it.

Can you explain why this marine park will be important to the Cook Islands? What are the benefits for the local people? And what opportunities does this provide for development?

The marine park aims to balance the use of our natural resources with conservation of our biodiversity. It also places emphasis on ecologically sustainable use of our resources. By protecting our biodiversity we protect our cultural, recreational and educational heritage. We protect the basis of our economy and our quality of life. By maintaining knowledge of the traditional subsistence use of our plants and animals we protect ourselves from global economic shocks.

What are the other main environmental challenges facing Cook Islands and other countries in the region? Deep sea mining is one prospect on the horizon, is there a risk that this could affect the integrity of the marine park in the future?

Seabed extraction of manganese nodules will impact our ocean and we are in discussion with the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority regarding measures that can be taken to minimize damage to the ocean from this activity. There is still much that is unknown about the process and methods of extraction of manganese nodules at depths of around 4,000m and the natural environment at that depth. We are keen to ensure that all information is gathered before a decision is made whether or not to proceed. We are hopeful that a regional approach can be taken to reduce cases of adverse trans-boundary effects.