Cook Islands, New Caledonia Unveil World’s Largest Marine Parks - And It’s Just The Beginning

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The Cook Islands, a self-governing parliamentary democracy in the South Pacific Ocean, formally announced the creation of the world's largest marine park Tuesday at the opening of the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum in the capital, Rarotonga.

Prime Minister Henry Puna said the more than 600,000 square mile reserve is the largest area in history by a single country for integrated ocean conservation and management and will cover a vast patch of the ocean nearly twice the size of France -- no small feat for a country whose combined landmass is barely larger than that of Washington, D.C.

"It is a major contribution to the well-being of humanity," Puna stated. "This is the Pacific challenge we face. Do we take this challenge on with a name and identity that makes us small and not linked with the ocean in our own eyes and the eyes of the world? Or do we stand together with renewed pride and commitment as the world's largest ocean-island states?"

The Pacific Islands Forum, founded in 1971, brings together 16 independent and self-governing states in the Pacific Ocean to work for a common cause. While they are often thought of as small island nations, their lands are mostly ocean, and their territories are some of the largest on earth, covering 8 percent of the planet.

These 16 members of the secretariat have been at the forefront of mitigating the effects of climate change, and the plan for the Cook Islands, to be legally established by 2013, is only the start. With the technical and scientific support of U.S.-based Conservation International, they have laid out an ambitious plan to protect some 25 million square miles of ocean, an area larger than the surface of the moon.

"We believe, in fact, I know, that this is the largest multinational conservation initiative in history," Peter Seligmann, co-founder and CEO of Conservation International, said from his hotel room in Rarotonga. "This is the largest number of nations and the largest area geographically."

If you look at these island nations, he said, their waters are all connected, so what one does affects the other.

"What we are seeing is a rallying call, first with Kiribati, now the Cook Islands and New Caledonia, which will announce a 870,000 square mile marine protected area."

On Wednesday, New Caledonia, the Cook Island's Pacific neighbor and a former French territory, also announced that it would create a new marine park to protect an area roughly half the size of India.

Forum leaders endorsed the greater Pacific Oceanscape plan in 2010, and it now provides a framework for the integrated conservation management, covering ocean health and security, governance, sustainable resource management, increased research and the facilitating of partnerships and inter-governmental cooperation needed to support conservation on such a large scale. Conservation International will offer its support and expertise, but the Pacific Oceanscape Commission, led by the secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, will make the ultimate decisions.

As it stands, the Pacific Oceanscape is like a puzzle whose pieces are slowly coming into place. It is based largely on the first piece of that puzzle: Kiribati's Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a protected patch of Ocean that's larger than the state of California.

The Phoenix Islands underwent one of the most severe coral bleaching events ever recorded, but over the last decade, the reef has recovered with remarkable speed and became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2010. This spawned the Cook Islands effort and a larger commitment from each nation in the forum.

Yet, there is still much research to be done. As Seligmann puts it, "We know more about the surface of the moon than the depths of the ocean." The nations will also need the support of the U.S., China, France and others involved in the region to help enforce regulations, but the presence of important Chinese officials and the likes of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the forum in the little-known Cook Islands is a good start.

Scientists say the region covered by the Pacific Oceanscape is home to 60 percent of the world's tuna stocks and contains the largest pristine marine ecosystems. This patch of the world's largest ocean also helps with carbon storage and effects precipitation, climate and the food of all nations.

"This is of global importance," Seligmann said. "We have 7 billion people on planet Earth, and we're headed toward 9 billion in 30 years. We are going to double demand over the next decades. How we take care of the oceans is a step in how we can maintain stable economies."

What these tiny island nations do is of enormous importance to the entire world, he added, and their influence cannot be underestimated.

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