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Rugby star turned ocean advocate Kevin Iro to receive 2022 Seacology Prize

September 17, 2022

Kevin Iro, an acclaimed athlete from the Cook Islands who championed the establishment of the world’s largest multi-use marine park, will receive the 2022 Seacology Prize.

Iro’s exceptional rugby career spanned decades and countries. Nicknamed “The Beast,” Iro was a dominating presence on the pitch, playing for teams in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. He went on to coach for the Cook Islands’ national team.

Returning to his home country after his retirement from professional rugby, Iro was alarmed by the environmental damage he saw. The Cook Islands’ once-spectacular coral reefs had deteriorated, and fisheries had been depleted, threatening local livelihoods and traditional fishing culture. So Iro set his sights on a new goal: protecting the vast ocean surrounding the islands. He soon found an ally in then-Prime Minister Henry Puna, and after years of advocacy, Iro’s vision materialized in the form of Marae Moana (“Sacred Ocean”). 

The ambitious plan, record-breaking in its scope, implements new conservation rules for the entirety of the country’s nearly 2-million-square-mile exclusive economic zone, an expanse of ocean roughly the size of Mexico. Most important, it bans commercial fishing and seabed mining within a 50-mile radius of each of the country’s islands. The plan was approved by the country’s parliament in a unanimous vote in 2017.

Iro’s reputation and advocacy were key to creating Marae Moana. He has since served as the ambassador for Marae Moana, frequently traveling the country to meet with communities, traditional leaders, and students across the sprawling island nation to spread the word about the importance of its success. 

Iro, second from left, meets with students who entered the art contest to design the official uniforms for Marae Moana.

Iro fishes with his son in the now-protected waters of Marae Moana.

Iro’s work aligns closely with our own. After meeting with Iro and Puna in early 2020, Seacology pledged our support for the reserve. We know that in order for conservation to be successful, local communities must be supportive and engaged. This is especially true in a huge but sparsely populated country like the Cook Islands, where there are limited personnel and resources for enforcement. Working with Marae Moana’s management team, the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, local artists, traditional leaders, schools, we have helped publicize Marae Moana’s new regulations through a nationwide outreach campaign. 

Our initiative has funded a student art contest to design the uniforms worn by park staff, voyages in traditional sailing crafts between the islands, radio programs and podcasts, and a mural celebrating Marae Moana that will be the longest in the South Pacific when it is complete. All of these efforts reinforce the path to sustainability that Iro’s vision has begun.