Once a Marine Protected Area Is Created, What Happens Next?

© Conservation International/photo by Toby de Jong

Above: Kevin Iro, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna and CI President Russ Mittermeier walking on a Cook Islands beach in 2012.

You might not think travelling throughout the South Pacific sounds like hard work. Don’t tell that to Kevin Iro.

Over the past two years the former rugby star has been island hopping through the palm-tree studded, turquoise coasts of the Cook Islands, but not as a tourist. Iro has been visiting remote villages — some many hours by boat from the capital of Rarotonga — collecting information from community members that will shape the world’s second-largest marine protected area.

At the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting in 2012, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna announced a plan to create the Cook Islands Marine Park — a region that, at more than 1.1 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles), covered half of the islands’ exclusive economic zone.

Disturbed by coral bleaching and declines in fish catch that have accelerated since his childhood visits to the islands, Iro has been one of the primary drivers behind the park since its inception.

This declaration was a milestone for marine protection, which was soon followed by further conservation commitments by other Pacific Island nations and territories like New Caledonia. This week, as Pacific Island nations once again converge for the Pacific Islands Forum — held this year in Palau — it’s likely that new commitments will be announced.

Continued momentum for ocean protection is great news. Yet protected areas like the Cook Islands Marine Park cannot be created and effectively enforced overnight. They require time to determine the exact borders, funds to ensure enforcement — and most importantly, they require the support of local communities.

So, what’s happened with the Cook Islands Marine Park in the two years since it was announced?

Alongside a group of scientists seeking to map out the islands’ coastal ecosystems, Iro and his team are going from village to village, gathering information about which areas people would like to see available for activities like fishing and mining — and which ones they want to be left alone.

This data is being uploaded into an online database, which will compile the wishes of communities, commercial fishers and mining companies. The intended final result will be a compromise that will maximize ocean protection while providing for these varying economic interests. CI has provided funding to support these efforts, as well as some significant input and advice behind the scenes.

The film below, recently produced by the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, gives an interesting glimpse at all of the often untold effort that goes into creating a new park: the long boat trips, the hours of meetings, the numerous scuba dives armed with notebooks and measurement tools.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole half-hour piece, skip ahead to 7:54.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.