It was a momentous occasion for the Cook Islands and its people as the “Marae Moana” (Ocean Sanctuary) Bill was passed into law in Parliament.
The Bill is a commitment to protecting an ocean space roughly the size of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho and Washington combined. The new law forbids commercial activity in 16 percent of the country’s exclusive economic zone and rings each of its 15 islands with a protected space extending outward 50 nautical miles.
Of the Bill, Prime Minister Henry Puna said, “As we passed the Marae Moana Bill into law, we as a country assured our commitment to integrated ocean management globally and made history as this is the largest commitment by a single country from ‘ridge to reef, and from reef to ocean.’”
Hailed as groundbreaking legislation, the Bill is a modern iteration of the Cook Islands’ traditional commitment to preserving oceanic resources in what has become known as one of the most pristine destinations to visit anywhere on earth.
“We all must now take care of our ocean,” Prime Minister Puna said, “[and] it is imperative that those who live and exist both within and beyond our ocean’s boundaries do recognize and respect its sanctity.”
The Marae Moana initiative was born more than five years ago, when a Cook Islands Tourism board member suggested turning the country into the cleanest and greenest destination in the world. In 2012, at a Pacific Leaders Forum meeting, Prime Minister Puna declared the nation’s intention.
Last week, following extensive consultations with the general public, bureaucrats, and traditional chiefs, lawmakers signed the Bill into being. Puna has said his primary concern is that the initiative remains non-partisan and non-political, and that it belongs to the people.
“Never before has the Cook Islands created an initiative that is so inclusive,” he said, “and because of this Marae Moana will ensure that the voices of all our people will continue to be heard.”
The initiative will be coordinated by a central office and council, and has been supported financially and materially by international agencies like Conservation International, Global Blue, IUCN, Waitt Foundation, NOAA, Oceans 5 and the Okeanos Explorer, Secretariat for the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), and Esri (Jack Dangermond, in particular). Not only does the Marae Moana Bill reconnect the Cook Islands with its sustainable heritage, but it also sets an example for the rest of the world.
“This is an adventure for us all, and it will require constant nurturing and attention,” Prime Minister Puna said. “In many ways we are venturing into the unknown, but because our people are agreed on the direction it is taking, we can all be confident that together we will achieve what we have set out to do.”
The Cook Islands can be reached by an easy overnight 10-hour non-stop flight on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) every Saturday night to Rarotonga’s (RAR) lagoon-side international airport.