The Pacific island state of Niue has announced that it will protect 100% of the ocean in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which spans 317,500 sq km (122,000 sq miles), roughly the area of Vietnam.
The water that surrounds one of the world’s largest raised coral atolls is the only place where the katuali is found – a sea snake that lives in the island’s honeycomb of underwater caves. Humpback whales migrate to Niue from Antarctica to give birth, spinner dolphins swim near the coast and Niue boasts the world’s highest density of gray reef sharks.
Yet the reefs of this isolated island in the Pacific Ocean, 370 miles (600km) from its nearest neighbor Tonga, are under threat. Illegal fishing is a serious issue in the Pacific Ocean and Niue is also experiencing the impact of the climate crisis, with warmer sea temperatures leading to coral bleaching and extreme weather damaging the environment and infrastructure.
“The sand from some of our coves has been washed away due to frequent high and rough seas and our coral is still recovering after Cyclone Heta hit Niue in 2004,” said Niue’s premier, 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 itself to 100% protection. The new policy, which came into force in April, has led to the creation of the Niue Nukutuluea multiple-use marine park. It is split into zones, including the pristine Beveridge Reef, an uninhabited atoll 120 miles from the island where fishing is banned and only scientific studies are allowed; a three-mile zone for traditional canoe fishing, sport fishing and scuba diving; a general ocean zone for foreign commercial fishing; and a conservation zone where vessels can pass through but not stop.
Those caught breaching Niue’s marine park laws and fishing illegally can have their vessel and catch seized, and receive a fine of up to NZ$500,000 (£255,000). If the government believes the crime should face a harsher penalty, it can prosecute using the 2013 Maritime Zones Act or the 1996 Territorial Sea and Economic Zones Act. “We can bring much larger penalties to bear, depending on the nature of the offense,” said Brendon Pasisi, Niue’s director for agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
The islanders monitor the marine park with the help of a satellite surveillance company, Global Fishing Watch. As Niue has no navy, its 1,700 inhabitants are relying on other countries to police their waters. Neighboring Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands carry out annual surveillance operations and the New Zealand air force flies over the protected zone twice a year to look for signs of illegal fishing.
But policing the newly protected waters will be an enormous challenge for the small nation, said Alanna Matamaru Smith, a marine biologist based in the Cook Islands. “Monitoring a large area of space with little resources for Pacific nations is most definitely an issue. We hope that with time, technology will improve, minimizing those issues around illegal activity,” she said.
Some people are skeptical about how much marine reserves can achieve, especially in the face of big threats such as global heating, ocean acidification and rising sea levels. “A reserve might protect individual areas of the ocean from impacts of seafloor mining, windfarm cables and legal fishing, but certainly for fishing, all they do is cause the fishing effort to go elsewhere,” said Ray Hilborn of Sustainable Fisheries, a research website backed by the University of Washington.
Despite pledges from more than 50 countries to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030, only just over 6% are marine protected areas, and about 2% is within highly protected “no-take” zones. And, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, most countries do not have the necessary resources to properly monitor and protect the reserves.
It can also be difficult for smaller, lower-income nations to commit to wide-scale protection. Palau announced in 2020 that it would protect 80% of its EEZ. But in an effort to boost its economy after tourism nosedived during the pandemic, Palau is reportedly considering reopening 50% of its protected zone 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 there is no other option. “We are doing our part to protect what we can for our future generation, just as our forefathers did for us,” he said.
There are plans to increase awareness in Niue, especially among younger people. “Most Niueans have never swum outside the reef,” said Evan Barclay, co-founder of Niue’s only scuba diving school, Niue Blue. “They don’t have the boats to go past the reef and generationally they have been taught to be wary of the ocean.”
When the pandemic shut down tourism on the island, Barclay’s team took schoolchildren on scuba dives and younger children on boat tours. The goal is that young, qualified divers can help replant coral on the reef, but it is also hoped that these trips will inspire them to consider a career that helps protect the ocean.
“The ocean is everything to us. It’s what defines us,” Tagelagi said. “We have to ensure our reefs and corals remain to provide a healthy ecosystem and continue to create a food source for our people.”