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What is Marae Moana?

Marae Moana is a multiple-use marine park which extends over the entire Exclusive Economic Zone of the Cook Islands, an area of 1.9 million square kilometres. It is currently the largest commitment by a single country for integrated management and conservation from ridge to reef and from reef to ocean. Marae Moana was legally designated on 12th July 2017 by the Marae Moana Act 2017 which has the primary purpose of protecting and conserving the” ecological, biodiversity and heritage values of the Cook Islands marine environment.” Marae Moana was first announced at the formal opening of the 43rd Pacific Leaders Forum in 2012 when Prime Minister Henry Puna committed to establishing what was then known as the “Cook Islands Marine Park”. Prime Minister Puna said at the time, “With the full support of my government, traditional leaders and local communities, as well as the past contributions by the present Opposition, the Marine Park will provide the necessary framework to promote sustainable development by balancing economic growth interests such as tourism, fishing and deep-sea mining, with conserving core biodiversity and natural assets, in the ocean, reefs and islands”.


The Marae Moana Act 2017 establishes a Marae Moana Council which has nine members including the Prime Minister, the leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, the President of the formal body of traditional paramount chiefs known as the House of Ariki, representatives from the northern and southern islands in the Cook Islands as well as leaders in the private, religious and NGO sectors of Cook Islands society.

The Marae Moana Council is advised by a Technical Advisory Group which is comprised of representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister, National Environment Service, Ministry of Marine Resources, Seabed Minerals Authority, Ministry of Transport, House of Ariki or Koutu Nui (formal body of traditional chiefs), and NGOs with marine science and social policy expertise. The Act also establishes a Marae Moana Coordination Office within the Office of the Prime Minister which is responsible for assisting the Council and Technical Advisory Group with their administrative and consultative functions. 


The ocean is threatened by overfishing, pollution and climate change. The percentage of fish stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 33.1 percent in 2015 (FAO, 2018). It’s estimated that 90% of all large predatory fish have disappeared since the 1950s (Worm and Myers, 2003). Yet, less than 5% per cent of the oceans are protected.  A large-scale Marine Park will provide a broad framework within which to plan the conservation and sustainable use of our ocean resources. This includes protection of large areas of open ocean and the deep ocean. It allows for the protection of large areas that cover a species life cycle. Marae Moana is also intended to provide support at the smaller scale, including support for coastal traditional marine protected areas or marine reserves.  Under the Convention of Biological Diversity, the world has committed to protecting 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. The Cook Islands is a party to this convention and with the establishment under the Marae Moana Act 2017 of protected areas around all islands covering 16% of our Exclusive Economic Zone, we have already exceeded this target. 

Coastal marine protected areas are well researched. There is now significant evidence that shows how fully protected no-take areas can allow fish to breed, increasing fish stocks and providing more fish for community fishing areas nearby (Goni et al, 2008; Harmelin-Vivien, 2008; Stobart et al, 2009). One study in the Philippines saw a significant increase in fish density outside of the reserve between 9 and 11 years after the no-take area was established. This was supported by interviews with fishermen who said that their catch had increased since the protected area was put in place (Russ and Alcala, 1996).  Marine Parks can also benefit local people by opening new opportunities to gain income. For example, countries with coral reefs attract SCUBA divers, yielding economic benefits to the host country and their communities. Globally, some 30% of the world’s reefs are of value in the tourism sector, with a total value estimated at nearly US$36 billion (Spalding et al, 2017).  

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Marae Moana is a multiple use area where zones will be drawn up for specific activities. These zones will be defined by the wants and economic, cultural, social and environmental needs of Cook Islands people. Island communities together with their local and national government will decide what they want to happen around their island. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park of Australia is an example of a large-scale marine protected area with zones that determine what people can and can’t do. In the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, activities such as trawling and aquaculture are allowed in the park but are restricted to certain areas.     


Zones are areas that are defined for various purposes.  For example, they could be areas where boats have to go slower than usual to protect turtles, they could be “no-anchoring” areas to protect sensitive reefs, sanctuaries to allow animals to breed, habitat protection areas to protect the homes of fish or to protect sea turtle nesting beaches, sustainable fishing areas, areas for no fishing or traditional ra’ui areas, tourism areas, areas for no tourism, areas for seabed mining or no seabed mining, and areas designed to protect endangered species from extinction. These zones will only be established with the support of local communities.  


Ra’ui is a Cook Islands traditional natural resource management practice. It is a ban on the harvest of a resource or access to a particular area. It can be applied to fruits of trees, crops, species of seafood, fish or areas of the lagoon or land. Ra’ui is declared by the chief of a tribe. In the sea it is typically used to build up fish and seafood populations for 9 months to 2 years before being lifted for harvest. Ra’ui mutukore are ra’ui that are declared for permanent protection of an area.   A Marine Park is a large area of the sea or ocean sometimes protected for recreational use but more often set aside to preserve a specific habitat and ensure conservation of the plants and animals that exist there.     


FAO. 2018. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 – Meeting the sustainable development goals. Rome.Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. Worm, B., Myers, R.A. 2003. Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities. Nature 23:280-283. Harmelin-Vivien M, Le Direach L, Bayle-Sempere J, Charbonnel E, Garcia-Charton JA, Ody D, Perez-Ruzafa A, Renones O, Sanchez-Jerez P, Valle C, Lenfant P, Bonhomme P, Perez-Rusafa A, Sanchez-LIzaso JL, Garcia-Charton JA, Bernard G, Stelzenmuller V, Planes S. 2008. Spillover from six western Mediterranean marine protected areas: evidence from artisanal fisheries Marine Ecology Progress Series 366: 159-174 Goni R, Adlerstein S, Alvarez-Berastequi D, Forcada A, Renones O, Criquet G, Polti S, Cadiou G, Valle C, Lenfant P, Bonhomme P, Perez-Ruzafa A, Sanchez-Lizaso JL, Garcia-Charton JA, Bernard G, Stelzenmuller V, Planes S. 2008 Spillover from six western Mediterranean marine protected areas: evidence from artisanal fisheries Marine Ecology Progress Series 366: 159-174. Russ, GR. Alcala, AC. 1996. Do marine reserves export fish biomass? Evidence from Apo Island, Central Philippines. Marine Ecology Progress Series 132:1-9. Stobart B, Warwick R, Gonzalez C, Mallol S, Diaz D, Renones O, Goni R. 2009. Long-term and spillover effects of a marine protected area on an exploited fish community Marine Ecology Progress Series 384: 47-60. Spalding, M., Burke, L., Wood, S.A., Ashpole, J., Hutchinson, J., Zu Ermgassen, P. 2017. Mapping the global value and distribution of coral reef tourism Marine Policy 82:104-113.