At first glance, Kevin Iro seems a somewhat unlikely ocean champion.
Raised in Auckland, Iro had a successful career in rugby, playing for clubs in England, Australia and New Zealand. But off the rugby field, Iro developed a strong passion for the ocean starting as a young boy, when his family began visiting relatives in the Cook Islands on school holidays. He immediately fell in love with the islands’ blue lagoons and stunning beaches.
Now, he is the brainchild behind the creation of the largest marine protected area in the Pacific, which is raising the bar for marine conservation efforts across the globe.
After a 14-year rugby career, Iro and his wife — a native Cook Islander — decided to move back to the Cooks from England with their six children. "We thought, 'what a place to bring children up — a place where they can swim in the lagoon every day,'" Iro says. "You know, it's a pretty carefree life."
Yet he quickly realized that things weren't the same as when he was a kid. Climate change, coastal development and other factors were causing corals to bleach and fish populations to plummet. These days around Rarotonga, the Cooks' most populous island, "if we want our children to see pristine reefs, we have to take them to the outer islands."
As a member of the Cook Islands tourism board, Iro also worried that this decline in the marine environment would impact tourism, which currently accounts for 70 percent of the islands' economy.
The idea for the creation of a new marine protected area was born out of conversations Iro had with friends — particularly Robin Grant, a hotel owner who suggested using the power of the Internet to get people involved in the park design process. They envisioned a park in which all Cook Islanders — even those living abroad — could have a say in how local marine resources are managed. While some parts of the park would be left completely untouched, others would be zoned for economic activities like sustainable fishing and dive tourism.
The park has already started to impact the people, with the local leaders seeing it as a way to voice their opinions on how our ocean resources are being managed.
In 2010, Iro proposed the idea for the Cook Islands Marine Park to the local government; which was announced in 2011 and launched in 2012. The park covers 1 million square kilometers — half of the Cook Islands' waters. CI has been an important advisor to the Cooks' government throughout the park's establishment, building on experience with the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in nearby Kiribati.
The creation of new protected areas is often a lengthy process, weighed down by arguments between stakeholders and seemingly endless paperwork. In comparison, the Cook Islands Marine Park has gone from conception to declaration — with widespread government and public support — in a few short years.
Iro attributes this support to the close connection all Cook Islanders have with the waters that surround them; even the prime minister himself, Henry Puna, owns a pearl farm. "The park has already started to impact the people, with the local leaders seeing it as a way to voice their opinions on how our ocean resources are being managed," Iro says.
As a seasoned athlete, Iro appreciates the value of working as a team — a skill that carries over into his new endeavor. The Cook Islands is currently working with GIS mapping software company Esri to develop an "open source" system that will use geospatial technology to allow anyone with Internet access to contribute to the design of the park. "We're looking at a design process where a fisherman can contribute as much as the decision-makers in Parliament."
Iro is excited to see the Cook Islands Marine Park move forward, and is optimistic about its future — not only for the expected conservation and tourism benefits, but also for the precedent it sets for other countries. "I think the idea is going to spread through the Pacific."