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Cook Islands

Marae Moana


Conservation benefit: Community support for Marae Moana, the world’s largest marine park

Date Approved: 06.2020


This project protects ocean ecosystems, making coastal communities more economically and physically secure in the face of climate change.

This project’s goal is to help make the biggest multi-use marine park in the world a success. The park is Marae Moana, or Sacred Ocean, which was created in 2017. Marae Moana is huge, roughly the size of Mexico. Different rules apply to different parts of this reserve, of course. Commercial fishing and seabed mining are forbidden in a 50-mile radius around each of the 15 major Cook Islands—an area that covers about 100,000 square miles.

When the Cook Islands created the reserve, backers knew that passing a law was only the beginning. They would need to acquire scientific knowledge about fisheries and conservation. They would need to develop reasonable, enforceable plans for managing this enormous marine area.

Most of all, they knew that for this historic initiative to succeed, it would need the support of the people. Seacology’s long experience shows, and many studies confirm, that conservation doesn’t work without the genuine support of local people. Cook Islanders’ culture and livelihoods have been intimately connected to the sea for a thousand years. They are likely to be skeptical of big changes that affect how they can use the sea.

Many Cook Islanders make their living by fishing or tourism, both of which are under threat. Climate change has hurt fishing, and the Covid-19 pandemic cut off international tourism. During the lull in international travel, the government reevaluated the country’s reliance on tourism and its effect on traditional ways of life. They hope to develop more diversified economy.

To solidify support for the marine reserve, the Marae Moana team will launch an ambitious public outreach program. It includes traditional and social media, special efforts for schoolchildren, and participation by traditional leaders in the outer islands. Seacology will be working with the Cook Island Voyaging Society, which sails beautiful traditional Cook Islands ships (vaka) and teaches children about history and navigation.

Project Updates

February 2023

Work on what will be the longest mural in the entire South Pacific is progressing well. A new educational initiative has begun in Aitutaki, the second most populated island of the Cook Islands. Our project partners also plan to make a short documentary about using a traditional system of taboos to preserve the marine life of Pukapuka, one of the world’s most remote islands.

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October 2022

Kevin Iro, a retired rugby star who played a key role in the creation of Marae Moana, was awarded the 2022 Seacology Prize. Iro’s high profile and steadfast advocacy were critical to building a political consensus for the creation of the reserve and he now serves as an official ambassador for Marae Moana, traveling the country to promote it and build local support for its success. Watch the recording of the prize ceremony here.

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February 2022

Our project partners are continuing their outreach with podcasts, school visits, a polo shirt design contest for schoolchildren, and meetings with traditional leaders on the outer islands. A 560-meter seawall, in a prominent spot near the Rarotonga airport, is being painted with a beautiful ocean-themed mural.

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February 2021

The Marae Moana campaign is off to a good start. Some highlights:

  • A traditional sailing vessel or vaka has made two trips to remote outer islands, Mangaia and Aitutaki. These voyages promote support for Marae Moana. The new Cook Islands prime minister took part in one voyage.
  • Traditional chiefs (ariki) of Mauke, Mitiaro, and Atui islands met and agreed to use traditional customs to protect marine resources. Their support is crucial to the success of the educational campaign.
  • In December, our partners reached about 7,200 people through various social media—in a country with an entire population of around 17,000.
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