Q&A with Kevin Iro, Rugby Player and Ocean Advocate

© Conservation International/photo by John Martin

This week at the Pacific Islands Forum, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna officially launched a marine park that will cover half of the islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). I talked with Kevin Iro — a former professional rugby player who first came up with the idea for this park — to find out more.

Question: How did your idea for the Cook Islands Marine Park come about?

Answer: I first came up with the concept in 2009 while I was on the board for Cook Islands Tourism; I thought our massive EEZ was a resource that was seriously under-utilized. I approached the then-minister of tourism (Wilkie Rasmussen) with the marine park concept, and he thought it was very credible and would indeed help our tourism industry. He took the concept to the cabinet, which started the process. During this time, I actually started researching the state of our oceans and realized that this was much more than a mechanism to help our tourism industry … we actually need to seriously protect what we own! Luckily, in 2010 when the new government was voted in, Prime Minister Puna totally agreed. He continued to lobby for the park within his party, and here we are today.

Q: How do you think the Cook Islands Marine Park will impact the islands’ people?

A: 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. The Koutu Nui (local chiefs) fully support the park and want the people to decide how it will be zoned and managed.

Q: How did your background in sport prepare you for the creation of this park?

A: I know the importance of having a team where every player or every position knows exactly what’s going on. You’re not gonna win games if two or three people on that team don’t know the game plan. I think the uniqueness of the Cook Islands Marine Park design process is that we’re looking to bring everyone and be inclusive.

Q: You talked about creating an “open-source” system that will allow anyone with Internet access to view activities in the park in real time. How will this work?

A: The idea of using the internet and social media came from a friend of mine, Robin Grant, who has been working with me on the park and how to promote it globally. The idea is to give Cook Islanders (and anyone else for that matter) a chance to design the park the way they think it should look. We have been liaising with Esri, a company that develops software allowing the users to draw their own zoning ideas into the park area and share this with other people, which in turn creates a database that can hopefully give us an idea of what the people want.

Q: How will the Cook Islands Marine Park contribute to the Pacific Oceanscape initiative?

A: The Cook Islands Marine Park fits perfectly within the Pacific Oceanscape in that it is a massive contribution from one of the smallest nations in the Pacific. Hopefully this will help build momentum for the Oceanscape and will inspire other Pacific nations to take similar actions.

Q: You have been advocating for the creation of this park for several years. Now that it’s been officially endorsed, how do you feel?

A: I feel proud for the Cook Islands as a nation. It is not the first time we have taken a major conservation stance while all around us have sat on the fence. We were one of the first Pacific countries to declare our entire EEZ as a whale and mammal sanctuary. Today, just about the whole Pacific has followed suit.

Q: What do you think the Cook Islands will look like in 50 years?

A: Hopefully the Cook Islands can “buck the trend” of having our environment deteriorate over time. With the right conservation systems being put in place now (infrastructure, recycling, sustainable fishing, responsible tourism, renewable energy), I can see the Cook Islands maintaining its pristine environment well past the next 50 years.

Molly Bergen is managing editor on CI’s news and publicity team.