A small Pacific island nation announces a bold plan to protect 100% of its ocean | keep

The Pacific island state of Niue has announced that it will protect 100% of the ocean in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which spans 317,500 square kilometers (122,000 square miles), roughly the size of Vietnam.

The water that surrounds one of the world’s largest elevated atolls is the only place where it is katuali It was found – a sea snake that lives in a honeycomb on the island of underwater caves. Humpback whales migrate to Niue from Antarctica to give birth, spinner dolphins swim close to the coast and Niue boasts The highest density in the world of gray sharks.

However, the reefs of this isolated island in the Pacific Ocean, 370 miles (600 kilometers) from its nearest neighbor Tonga, are in danger. poaching A serious issue in the Pacific Ocean, Niue is also suffering the impact of the climate crisis, with rising sea temperatures leading to coral bleaching and severe weather damaging the environment and infrastructure.

striped eel swimming
The katualiflat-tailed eel (Laticuda schistorhynchus) about Niue.
Photography: Ross Armstrong/Almy

“Sand has been washed away from some of our bays due to the frequency of rough and bumpy waves and the reefs are still recovering after Hurricane Hita Niue hit in 2004,” said Niue Premier, Dalton Tajilagi.

Niue, a self-governing country in free association with New Zealand, announced in 2020 that it would protect 40% of its surroundings. The Cook Islands follows its commitment to 100% protection. The new policy, which took effect in April, led to the creation of the Niue Nukutuluea mixed-use marine park. It is divided into regions, including the pristine Beveridge Reef, an uninhabited atoll 120 miles from the island where the fishing is done. Prohibited and only scientific studies allowed; a three-mile area for traditional canoe fishing, sport fishing, and scuba diving; A general oceanic area for foreign commercial fishing; A protected area where ships can pass through but do not stop.

Those caught violating Niue’s marine park laws and fishing illegally could have their ship confiscated and fished, and charged a fine of up to NZ$500,000 (£255,000). If the government believes the crime should face a heavier penalty, it can prosecute using the 2013 Marine Areas Act or the 1996 Regional and Economic Marine Areas Act. “We can impose much greater penalties, depending on the nature of the offense,” said Brendon Pasese, director of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in Niue. the crime”.

Islanders monitor the marine park with the help of a satellite monitoring company, global fishing watch. Since there is no naval power in Niue, its 1,700 residents depend on other nations to monitor their waters. Tonga, Samoa and the neighboring Cook Islands conduct annual observations and the New Zealand Air Force flies over the protected area twice a year to look for signs of illegal fishing.

Shallow of fish over reef
shallow of the common thread, or Ekaatea, off Niue. “We are doing our part to protect what we can for the future generation, just as our grandparents did for us,” says Niue Premier, Dalton Tajilaje. Photo: Xinhua / Elmi

Monitoring the newly protected waters will be a formidable challenge for this small nation, said Alana Matamaru-Smith, a marine biologist based in the Cook Islands. “Monitoring a large area of ​​space with few resources for Pacific nations is definitely a problem. We hope that the technology will improve over time, and reduce those issues with illegal activity.”

Some people doubt how much marine reserves can achieve, especially in the face of big threats like global warming, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels. Ray Heilburn from . said: sustainable fisheriesa research site supported by the University of Washington.

Despite pledges from more than 50 countries Protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030Just little more than 6% They are marine protected areas, and about 2% fall within highly protected “no-go” areas. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, most countries do not have the resources to properly monitor and protect reserves.

Diver swimming in a cave
Explore one of the underwater caves that surround Niue, which is one of the largest atolls in the world. Photo: Design Pics / Alamy

It can also be difficult for smaller, lower-income countries to commit to widespread protections. Palau announced in 2020 that it will do so 80% protection from its exclusive economic zone. But in an effort to boost its economy after tourism slumped during the pandemic, Palau is reportedly considering reopening 50% of its protected area for commercial hunting.

Tagilaje realizes that turning 100% of Niue’s ocean into a protected reserve is ambitious, but says he wants to remind people that there is no other option. “We are doing our part to protect what we can for the future generation, just as our grandparents did for us,” he said.

There are plans to raise awareness in Niue, especially among young people. “Most Niueans have never swam outside a reef,” said Evan Barclay, co-founder of Niue’s only scuba diving school, Niue Blue. “They don’t have the boats to get past the reef and they have learned over the generations to be wary of the ocean.”

When the pandemic brought tourism on the island to a standstill, the Barclay team took scuba-diving schoolchildren and young children on boat trips. The goal is that young, qualified divers can help replant corals on reefs, but it is also hoped that these trips will inspire them to consider a career that helps protect the ocean.

“The ocean is everything to us. That’s what sets us apart,” Tajilaje said. “We have to ensure our reefs survive to provide a healthy ecosystem and continue to create a food source for our people.”