Last month a consultation team, led by House of Ariki president Travel Tou Ariki, visited the islands of Manihiki, Rakahanga and Penrhyn to inform them about the marine park project.
Support from the island of Manihiki has led to a petition to Government to include the northern group in the marine park.
“Our population is small and our location remote, but we are Cook Islanders just as much as anyone in the southern group. Let the Government hear our voice – we vote and we pay taxes – and we support and would like to be included in the Cook Islands Marine Park,” reads the petition.
“We, the island of Manihiki, stand united in our support of a Cook Islands Marine Park and sustainably managing our marine resources so that future generations can continue the Cook Islands way of life which was passed down to us by our ancestors,” it states.
The people of Manihiki say they are not suggesting they want to remove all foreign commercial interests from the northern group.
“We are suggesting that we would like to have a more direct say in how our waters are managed, and we would like to establish some areas of reserve and protection for our abundant marine resources in the northern group beyond the 12 miles currently afforded each island,” the petition states.
Co-chair of the Marine Park Steering Committee, Elizabeth Wright-Koteka says they decided to get the views of the northern group after overwhelming support from the southern group for the park.
“When we had consultations with the southern group they asked why the northern group was not included, so we decided to see if they support the concept and whether they want to be included.”
The team soon discovered that many people in the north were hearing about the marine park concept for the first time through the consultations.
Wright-Koteka says the northern group people told them they want to be part of the marine park as a way of addressing their concerns and issues around offshore fisheries and marine conservation.
“They raised the issue of limited catch and smaller sized fish, and they are concerned about a lack of transparency with offshore fisheries, despite the fact that the majority of this activity is based in the north,” she says.
The consultation team had public meetings in both Tauhunu and Tukao in Manihiki.
“Following the meetings we learnt that Manihiki had prepared a petition. They weren’t asked to, but had done so with the help of the island council. People in both villages signed it.”
The people of Manihiki have also created a map showing how they would like their island and the northern group included in Marae Moana.
The petition will add to the findings of the consultations to be presented to Prime Minister Henry Puna and Cabinet.
“The findings will outline the views of the north and provide alternative options for designated areas of the marine park. Essentially we need Government to make decisions around this before we can take the next step for legally designating the park and management framework,” says Wright-Koteka.
Consultations have been held in all islands except Pukapuka and Nassau due to transport issues.
Wright-Koteka says there were initial concerns from people that they would lose some of their rights in their inshore areas, and they were reassured that the park will help protect traditional rights.
Fellow co-chair of the committee, Kevin Iro, says he was impressed by Manihiki’s initiative and the 100 per cent support given to Marae Moana by the people of the north.
“They are the ones that are really seeing the effects of commercial fishing in their waters. When you get a hundred per cent of a community supporting a concept, you know they are passionate about the ocean.”
Iro says there is now a sense that the Pacific has lost control of its resources, and the future will be determined by the decision-makers.
“This is basically the last ocean that hasn’t been overfished. We have to start making key decisions on conservation, not just in the Cook Islands, but in the whole of the Pacific.”
Iro says the next step for his committee is to report the findings of the island consultations to Government and lobby leaders to make some serious commitments to Marae Moana.
The Manihiki petition also lobbies for making the right decision: “In life we are often forced to make decisions which are not simple, and to choose between an easy path and a hard path. What should determine our path is what is right and wrong. We believe in choosing the right path, even if it is more difficult.”
During the island consultations Iro uses the marine conservation initiatives in Palau as an example of what can be achieved.
“Like Palau, our major industry is tourism. What’s that worth to our economy as opposed to fisheries? Fisheries income equates to about an extra 2000 tourists per year. Marine tourism has grown by 13 per cent a year world-wide since 1980. The president of Palau has said: ‘Let’s concentrate on ecotourism’ because they firmly believe in conservation. It makes sense to invest in something that is growing, than investing in a dying fisheries industry,” says Iro.
The support from the northern group could lead to the future extension of Marae Moana, which presently covers an area of 1.1 million square kilometres covering the southern half of the country’s waters.
The northern group consultation team included Koutu Nui representative Uirangi Mataiapo Dorothy Nicholas, Marine Park Project Manager Jacqui Evans, Marine Conservation Advisor Teina Rongo, and videographer Jerome Sheddon.