When Niueans are babies, their parents traditionally take them down to the seashore and throw them in the water so they learn to swim, Mona Ainu’u told Mongabay. That’s more important in Niue than most places. The country’s 260-square-kilometer (100-square-mile) land area is a single chunk of coral jutting out of the South Pacific Ocean; its closest neighbour, Tonga, is some 600 kilometers (325 nautical miles) away. With so little solid ground, the ocean also needs to be home.
Fishing off the reef or in vaka (“canoes” in Niuean), gleaning mollusks from rocks and diving for clams and crayfish are part of daily life for many of Niue’s 1,620 residents. “My love for the ocean is practical, because I need to fish for my family,” said Ainu’u, a fisher and Niue’s minister of natural resources. “But it’s also a hobby, because I just love being there.”
As minister, Ainu’u has helped bring about a change she hopes will ensure that catch remains for generations: designating Niue’s entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ) — an area about the size of Vietnam — as a multiple-use marine park called Niue Nukutuluea.
Launched in April 2022, the park includes five zones with distinct uses. There’s a no-take zone where fishing, seabed mining, and mineral and oil exploration are prohibited: called Niue Moana Mahu Marine Protected Area, this spans 40 percent of the EEZ. Inside, there’s a special management area where further restrictions can be imposed around a biodiverse submerged coral atoll called Beveridge Reef. Within 3 nautical miles (5.5 km) of Niue Island is a subsistence special management area managed by adjacent villages, and there’s a restricted commercial-use zone between 3 and 24 nautical miles (5.5 and 44 km) from the island that’s earmarked for local fisheries, tourism, and charter fishing. The remaining expanse, about 56% of the EEZ, is a general-use zone that permits a variety of activities, including licensed foreign commercial fishing.
Brendon Pasisi is the project manager for Niue Ocean Wide (NOW), a public-private partnership between the government and local NGO Tofia Niue to implement the marine park. He’s also a lifelong fisher: “I mean, we’re all fishers here!” he told Mongabay. He said he hopes the framework will boost the country’s ecotourism sector. “We see this as a platform to market ourselves as a place where our isolation is a benefit, in that we have this pristine environment that we wish to protect a large part of,” he said.
Whale-watching is a big drawcard. Niue boasts key breeding sites and migration pathways for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and is one of the few places where tourists can swim with them. Game fishing is also popular, with sought-after tropical pelagic species such as wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri), mahi-mahi (Coryphaena hippurus), and yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) on offer.
With a coherent marine spatial plan across the country’s entire ocean space, proponents hope to ensure that “as we develop tourism, we’re able to do it sustainably and keep pace with the carrying capacity of our island and our ocean,” Pasisi said. They see the new legal framework as a way to attract partner organisations and investors to help them manage it effectively. They’ve developed an unusual funding mechanism, and are gathering support to confront the perennial challenge of monitoring and compliance in technologically advanced ways.
As targets like 30×30 — a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30 percent of Earth’s land and ocean as protected areas by 2030 — gain prominence, marine protected areas are in the spotlight. But “they’re not magic boxes,” said Patrick Smallhorn-West, a marine researcher at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. “People treat them sometimes as if you set them up and — poof! — magic happens, and conservation is achieved. But that’s not how these things work. The only way they do anything is by changing patterns of human behavior.”
With that in mind, how will Niue make sure its huge new marine park makes a real impact for its ocean — and its people?
Not as big as it used to be
At the local level, NOW aims to help Niue’s villages and government work together to manage marine resources more effectively, Pasisi said. Until recently, each village managed its designated marine area largely by itself, using tools such as fono and tapu, traditional fishing restrictions. But in recent decades, “the technologies and methodologies of fishing and storing marine resources has overtaken the cultural context in which some of those management rules made sense,” Pasisi said.
New rod types, chemically sharpened hooks, flashlights instead of fire staffs for nighttime fishing, and refrigeration have all made a big impact. “It used to be that you could only take what you could eat on the day, but since freezers came into the picture, it’s much easier to harvest a lot more,” Pasisi said. “Better boats also help people get to more isolated spots: the island suddenly isn’t quite as big as it used to be.”
There’s also demand for local seafood from the more than 30,000 ethnic Niueans who live elsewhere (mostly in New Zealand). In 2015, the Niuean government banned the commercial export of coconut crabs (Birgus latro) to New Zealand due to stock depletion, but individuals still bring fresh seafood out of Niue via plane.
In 2016, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, in collaboration with the Niuean government, funders’ collaborative Oceans 5, and the Pacific Community, conducted a comprehensive quantitative survey of Niue’s marine environmental health. They found that fish biomass around Niue Island was “some of the lowest that we have observed in the Pacific,” and concluded this likely resulted from a combination of naturally low productivity and overfishing. What’s more, in the island’s 20-year-old no-take marine reserve, Alofi North, fish biomass was no different from adjacent areas. “Fishing line was evident throughout the MPA, suggesting a lack of compliance with the no-take area,” the report said.
Through NOW, each village has its own marine management plan to govern its slice of the marine park’s subsistence special management area, and an advisory committee to oversee implementation and build capacity where required. “Each community will be responsible for their areas and the commitments they have made,” said Josie Tamate, director-general of the Ministry of Natural Resources. “Empowering the communities to take control of the management of their resources is the ultimate goal.”
Eyes on the EEZ
In the park’s general-use zone, there’s far less fishing action. No licensed foreign commercial fishing vessels currently operate there. This stretch of sea is relatively unproductive, so companies tend to fish elsewhere in the Pacific, begging the question: is there any point making a marine park where little or no fishing is happening anyway?
Smallhorn-West expressed skepticism. “These big offshore MPAs look good; they’re great for hitting spatial targets like 30×30,” he said. “But … their actual impact is zero until it limits some kind of extraction.”
Yet according to the Pristine Seas study, Niue’s marine environment is particularly vulnerable due to its low productivity, so even small amounts of poorly managed or illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing could have big effects. NOW aims to mitigate these through improved monitoring and compliance, a considerable challenge as the EEZ is large and Niue has limited resources. There’s no navy, no patrol boats, and limited capacity for marine surveys: the Fisheries Division “only has five staff, and two or three certified divers,” Pasisi said.
Regional partnerships help. The New Zealand air force does a twice-annual surveillance flight over Moana Mahu, while the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission offer regular patrols by neighbouring members Tonga, Samoa, and the Cook Islands. Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a nonprofit that uses satellites and machine learning to document human activity at sea, is also collaborating with the government on a pilot project called the Marine Manager Portal that helps countries track fishing and shipping vessel activities in their waters, as well as shifts in temperature and productivity.
“We’re mapping that in near-real time and high resolution,” said GFW fisheries scientist Tim White, “so folks like Brendon [Pasisi] can make well-informed decisions about what people are doing, what the ocean is doing, and how they can manage it effectively.”
But gaps remain. “We have all these agreements where we look out for each other, but when the space is so huge, without our own mechanisms or resources for monitoring and surveillance, it is very, very difficult,” Ainu’u said.
In June this year, a few weeks after the marine park was announced, a Taiwanese tuna boat wrecked on Beveridge Reef, in the middle of the no-take reserve. The crew was rescued by a sister vessel, and GFW alerted the Niuean government to the case. But before the closest accessible patrol boat could reach the reef from its base in Tonga, the ship caught fire, making it difficult to ascertain whether it had been fishing illegally or simply passing through. The case remains under investigation, according to Pasisi.
To Ainu’u, incidents like this highlight the scale of the challenge at hand. Along with bringing in partners to strengthen management of the marine park, she said NOW also aims to scale up its own efforts through tools like marker buoys with camera monitors, more marine surveys, and possibly drone-based monitoring.
Overall, NOW is trying to raise NZ$1.3 million (US$763,000) in annual funding to implement the marine park, including enhancing enforcement and management capabilities; building climate resilience and reducing climate risks; building conservation and ecotourism capacity; and mitigating the opportunity costs of designating a large part of the marine park as a no-take reserve. To raise that money, it’s drawing on sources such as donations, sustainable tourism levies, and a novel sustainable financing mechanism called Ocean Conservation Credits.
Under this scheme, people pay a set price — currently NZ$250 (US$147) for a 20-year period — to help protect a square kilometer of Moana Mahu. “It’s like an offset for the cost of blocking that area, and the management and monitoring and compliance of it,” Pasisi said. But unlike a carbon offset, the funds are not actually tied to a particular piece of the protected area, so they can’t be purchased to make up for extraction or degradation elsewhere in the ocean. Launched in July, the mechanism is proving popular with corporations, donors, Niueans living abroad, and tourists, Pasisi said. “We’ve been really encouraged by how much interest there is.”
Deep questions: What about seabed mining?
On the Niue EEZ’s western flank, the Cook Islands government has been critiqued by marine scientists and environmentalists over its support for exploration for seabed mining within its massive multiple-use marine park, Marae Moana, launched in 2017. As that debate continues across the Pacific, where the first modern deep-sea mining trial commenced in October, Niue’s government has not stated a position — and the current plan does not rule it out in the park’s general-use zone.
It’s unclear whether this is likely to be a pressing issue. Niue has some cobalt and manganese on its seafloor, but most is within Moana Mahu, where mining is prohibited, and it’s extremely deep and not as abundant as elsewhere in the Pacific. Ainu’u said there was considerable local opposition, but the government would look to scientific data before making any decisions. “We haven’t really spoken about other activities that could be possible in this space: we’re working on doing what we can with what we have right now.”
Fiafia Rex, the founder and president of local marine mammal protection organisation Oma Tafua (“to treasure whales”), was unequivocal. “I think if you’re going to declare a 100 percent EEZ marine park, you’re going big and bold,” she said. “For me, big and bold means a moratorium, full stop: it’s automatic, and appropriate.”
Smallhorn-West was similarly clear: “Industrial fishing and seabed mining are probably the two biggest threats to the marine ecosystem,” he said. “So, if they implement a big no-take zone but don’t ban mining, then that’s likely a bit of a problem.”
More fish in the sea?
It’s not yet clear to what extent the marine park will affect fish numbers and ecosystem health. For Ainu’u, though, the designation is one step in a long journey that started in the past and extends into the future. “It’s not a new concept as such, because our ancestors established traditional laws to manage the marine space,” she said. “But now, because there are a lot more activities and interest in our ocean real estate, this is something we need to have happen for us to be able to move forward, said Ainu’u.