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Former International Rugby Star Pivots to Protecting His Home islands, Receives Annual Environmental Award

Kevin Iro of the Cook Islands has been named the recipient of the 2022 Seacology Prize, which honours exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture. Iro is being recognized for his successful campaign to create the largest multi-use marine park in the world, Marae Moana.

The award will be presented on October 6, 2022, in a live-streamed ceremony. The event is free and open to the public; tickets are available here.

Iro, who does not have a background in science or activism, is not a traditional environmentalist. For most of his adult life, his passion was rugby. Iro played professional rugby for 14 years with the New Zealand national league team (the Kiwis) and with other teams in England and the Cook Islands, where his talent and determination earned him the nickname “The Beast.”

Announcing Iro’s award, Duane Silverstein, Seacology’s Executive Director, said, “Kevin Iro is an unconventional activist but a natural leader, whose passion and hard work inspire us all. He has spearheaded a huge advance in ocean conservation.”

When he retired from professional sports, Iro was drawn back to the South Pacific, to his native Cook Islands, a nation of tiny islands and vast ocean. Settling in the Cooks Islands in 2001, he founded a sports academy where students grow as athletes and also participate in cultural exchanges—for example, with aboriginal groups in Australia.

On his return, Iro saw that the islands’ coral reefs weren’t as vibrant and healthy as they had been when he was a child. In 2009, he went public with his concerns about the environmental decline and its effects on traditional fishing, tourism, and island culture. He was soft-spoken but insistent: There was an urgent need to act.

Such advocacy from an athlete was almost unprecedented; environmental issues were considered the province of scientists and traditional indigenous leaders. But the tenacity Iro had shown on the rugby field helped him convince others to try to save the Cook Islands environment.

The Cook Islands’ prime minister at the time, Henry Puna, became an ally, and he and Iro began pushing the idea of an enormous marine park, encompassing all of the country’s lagoons and ocean. They called it Marae Moana, or Sacred Ocean. Eventually, with bipartisan political support and input from fishers, traditional leaders, and others, Marae Moana became a reality in 2017. It covers the country’s entire exclusive economic zone, an area about the size of Mexico. Most important, it prohibits commercial fishing and mining within 50 nautical miles of e ach of t he
country’s 15 islands.

In 2019, Iro became the first Marae Moana Ambassador, tasked with promoting Marae Moana worldwide. He has since worked tirelessly to make Marae Moana a success, reaching out to people on the country’s far-flung islands and all over the world—to talk about the importance of marine conservation. He has put particular emphasis on getting island youth involved and excited about their unique environment and culture.

Reacting to the news of his Seacology Prize, Iro said, “I am very thankful to Seacology for this prize and for their work with the Marae Moana and its many stakeholders. The Pacific Ocean is vast, and protecting it may feel daunting at times, but collaboration with like-minded organizations such as Seacology gives us hope that initiatives like Marae Moana will continue to thrive.”