Video stills from a March 2012 trip to the Cook Islands. 

Marae Moana: Cook Islands Marine Park

Where more than 99% of their home is ocean, government and traditional leaders recognize that healthy waters mean healthy people and stable livelihoods.

© CI/photo by Toby de Jong

While less than 1% of the Cook Islands’ territory is land (a mere 240 square kilometers or 93 square miles), the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) spans a spectacular 1.8 million square kilometers (707,000 square miles) of the south Pacific Ocean.

Rich with marine biodiversity, including rare seabirds, beaked whales, manta rays and several threatened shark species, the country’s 15 small islands — home to about 15,000 people — also host growing industries such as tourism, fishing and deep sea mining.

To promote sustainable development and balance economic growth with conservation of the ocean’s natural assets, in 2012, the Cook Islands government, traditional Maori leaders and local communities declared the Cook Islands Marine Park — the second largest of its kind in the world. The park will ​provide protection of 1.1 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles) of the southern half of the country’s EEZ, which includes remote atolls, high volcanic islands surrounded by fringing reefs and native fauna associated with underwater mountains.

Our role

Invited by Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Conservation International has provided counsel and support to the marine park’s development. Currently in the design phase, the marine park’s steering committee is experimenting with innovative outreach efforts to value and foster public participation in the park’s design. Together with our partners, Conservation International is focused on supporting the Cook Islands with essential financing, research, knowledge sharing and technologies to bring the marine park to life. We have also supported the park’s inclusion in the Big Ocean Network, a professional network of the world’s largest marine protected areas represented by on-the-ground managers and their partner organizations. The aim is to improve the effectiveness of large-scale marine management globally by sharing information, expertise and resources.

Our plan

Share knowledge

Conservation International draws from expertise designing large-scale marine managed area initiatives in other areas of the Pacific Oceanscape and around the world. We have shared resources to profile the marine park’s wildlife and supported traditional Maori leadership in all phases of the park’s development. Creating a large-scale marine protected area is a huge undertaking, and networking with other nations with similar initiatives in different stages of development is beneficial to all parties. To this end, we have supported the Government of the Cook Islands and the Government of New Caledonia (an archipelago nation 3,500 kilometers to the west in the Coral Sea) to establish a sister-site agreement between their large-scale marine protected areas so they can coordinate their sustainable management efforts. New Caledonia will share its experience in the field of cross-cutting scientific exploration, and the Cook Islands will share its expertise in integrated governance to facilitate engagement at all levels.

Commit to the Pacific Oceanscape

The Cook Islands Marine Park is one of the largest national commitments to the Pacific Oceanscape — itself one of the the largest conservation initiatives on Earth, encompassing 10% of the Earth’s ocean surface, 23 Pacific island countries and territories and a wide range of natural resources essential for human well-being. Conservation International is the founding NGO partner of the Pacific Oceanscape, an initiative of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders, and as such, we work closely with leaders, governments and regional agencies to design and implement its framework for sustainable ocean management, stewardship and governance.

Young boy standing in the shallow water at a beach, arms outstreched, reaching out to the beautiful and moody sky
© Mlenny Photography

By the numbers

1.1 million square kilometers conserved

The Cook Islands Marine Park will provide protection of rich marine biodiversity across 1.1 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles) of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Kevin Iro: Rugby player and ocean advocate