The Pacific island state of Niue has announced it will protect 100% of the ocean in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which covers 317,500 km2 (122,000 sq mi), roughly the area from Vietnam.
The water surrounding one of the largest raised coral atolls in the world is the only place where Katuali is found – a sea serpent that lives in the honeycomb of the island’s underwater caves. Humpback whales migrate to Niue from Antarctica to give birth, spinner dolphins swim near the coast, and Niue has the highest density in the world gray reef sharks.
Yet the reefs of this isolated island in the Pacific Ocean, 370 miles (600 km) from its nearest neighbor Tonga, are under threat. Illegal fishing is a serious problem in the Pacific Ocean and Niue is also feeling the impact of the climate crisis, with warmer sea temperatures leading to coral bleaching and extreme weather damaging the environment and infrastructure.
“The sand in some of our coves was washed away due to rough high seas and our coral is still recovering after Cyclone Heta hit Niue in 2004,” Niue’s premier said. Dalton Tagelagi.
Niue, a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, announced in 2020 that it would protect 40% of its ocean. It follows the Cook Islands in committing to 100% protection. The new policy, which took effect in April, led to the creation of the Niue Nukutuluea Multi-Use Marine Park. It is divided into areas including the pristine Beveridge Reef, an uninhabited atoll 120 miles from the island where fishing is prohibited and only scientific studies are permitted; a three-mile zone for traditional canoe fishing, sport fishing and scuba diving; a general ocean area for foreign commercial fishing; and a conservation area where ships can pass but not stop.
Those who break Niue Marine Park laws and fish illegally can have their vessel and catch seized and fined up to NZ$500,000 (£255,000). If the government feels that the crime should be subject to a harsher penalty, it can initiate proceedings under the Maritime Zones Act 2013 or the Territorial Sea and Economic Zones Act 1996. “We can issue much heavier penalties, depending on the nature of the offence,” said Brendon Pasisi, Niue’s director of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
The islanders monitor the marine park with the help of a satellite monitoring company, Global Fisheries Monitoring. Because Niue has no navy, its 1,700 people depend on other countries to police their waters. Tonga, Samoa and the neighboring Cook Islands carry out annual surveillance operations and the New Zealand Air Force flies over the protected area twice a year to look for signs of illegal fishing.
But monitoring the newly protected waters will be a huge challenge for the tiny nation, said Cook Islands-based marine biologist Alanna Matamaru Smith. “Monitoring a large area of space with few resources for Pacific countries is certainly a problem. We hope that over time the technology will improve, minimizing problems with illegal activities,” she said.
Some people are skeptical about the scale of marine reserves, especially in the face of big threats such as global warming, ocean acidification and sea level rise. “A reserve could protect individual areas from the ocean from the impacts of seabed mining, wind farm cables and legal fishing, but certainly for fishing, all they do is make the fishing effort go somewhere else,” said Ray Hilborn of Sustainable fishinga research website supported by the University of Washington.
Despite pledges from more than 50 countries to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, only just over 6% are marine protected areas and about 2% are in highly protected “no go” areas. And, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, most countries lack the resources to properly monitor and protect reserves.
It can also be difficult for small, low-income countries to engage in large-scale protection. Palau announced in 2020 that it protect 80% of its EEZ. But in an effort to boost its economy after tourism plummeted during the pandemic, Palau is reportedly considering reopening 50% of its protected area to commercial fishing.
Tagelagi is aware 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 our future generation, just as our ancestors did for us,” he said.
There are plans to increase awareness of Niue, especially among young people. “Most Niueans have never swum off the reef,” said Evan Barclay, co-founder of Niue’s only scuba diving school, Niue Blue. “They don’t have the boats to cross the reef and generationally they have been taught to be wary of the ocean.”
When the pandemic ended tourism on the island, the Barclay team took school children scuba diving and younger children on boat trips. The aim is for qualified young divers to help replant coral on the reef, but it is also hoped that these trips will inspire them to consider careers that help protect the ocean.
“The ocean is everything to us. That’s what defines us,” Tagelagi said. “We need to ensure that our reefs and corals remain to provide a healthy ecosystem and continue to create a food source for our people.”