Over 50 countries have pledged in recent years to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030, amid growing pressures on the ocean from climate change and human activities such as fishing and fossil fuel extraction. Now, the small island state of Niue decided to take it a step further, protecting 100% of the ocean in its exclusive economic zone.
Niue, sometimes referred to as the “Rock of Polynesia,” lies about 2,400 kilometers northeast of Auckland, New Zealand, and almost 400 kilometers east of Tonga, in the southwestern Pacific. It’s a self-governing state in free association with Zealand. It’s one of the smallest nations on Earth, with about 260 square kilometers of land area, and it's also one of the most isolated countries on Earth.
Unlike its neighbors, Niue isn’t an archipelago of islands -- it’s a single island that is basically a raised coral atoll (and one of the largest atolls in the world). The area is rich in biodiversity. It’s the only place where the katuali or flat-tail sea snake (Laticauda schistorhyncha) is found. It's also a place used by humpback whales that migrate from Antarctica to give birth.
However, the reefs of this island are largely under threat. Warmer sea temperatures because of climate change are leading to coral bleaching, while extreme weather is also damaging the environment and infrastructure. Also, illegal fishing is a big problem for most countries in the Pacific Ocean, the world’s most fertile fishing ground.
Niue announced in 2020 that it would protect 40% of its ocean, seeking to prevent further impacts on its marine biodiversity. Now, the government decided to take things a step further, committing itself to 100% protection. The move follows a similar commitment by the neighboring Cook Islands, dealing with similar issues as Niue.
“This is a globally significant contribution from Niue to the international efforts towards supporting the stability of our planet and ocean into the future. This is highly important right now as the impacts of climate change, pollution, and overharvesting are having very real impacts on every corner of the globe,” Niue’s Premier Dalton Tagelagi said in a statement.
The first steps forward
As part of its new protection commitment, which came into force in April, Niue created the Niue Nukutuluea multiple-use marine park. It’s divided into zones, including a conservation zone where vessels can pass through but not stop, a sport fishing and canoe fishing zone, and a general ocean zone that allows foreign commercial fishing.
Those that break the rules of the marine park can have their vessel and catch seized and receive a fine of up to $280,000. The government monitors activities in the marine park with a satellite surveillance company, Global Fishing Watch. Niue has no navy, so it partners up with Tonga, Samoa, and the Cook Islands for them to police the marine park.
“We’re thrilled to see this commitment from the government and people of Niue, and hope that their action will inspire other countries to follow suit with their own EEZs,” Ashleigh McGovern, Vice President of Development and Innovation and Director of Partnerships at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, said in a statement.
Back in 2016, a team from National Geographic’s Pristine Seas and the philanthropic group Oceans 5 explored Niue’s waters. The 18-day expedition revealed impressive marine life, including over 300 species of fish and three species of globally endangered sea turtles. This information helped the government take further ocean protection measures.