Jacqueline Evans

Jacqueline Evans campaigned to keep much of the Cook Islands’ waters off-limits to disruptive commercial fishing.

Credit:

 Goldman Environmental Prize

Jacqueline Evans, a marine conservationist from the Cook Islands, has received a Goldman Environmental Prize for helping to lead a campaign to protect her island country’s waters.

The Cook Islands is a tiny island country in the South Pacific with a total land area of just 93 square miles. The ocean territory of the islands is far larger — 760,000 square miles — and is home to coral reefs and many threatened marine species. Until recently, the richly biodiverse area was at risk of overfishing.

Related: Vancouver, WA, activist wins a Goldman Environmental Prize

Evans helped run a grassroots effort to pass legislation called the Marae Moana — or “Sacred Ocean" — Act, which creates 15 marine protected areas and ensures sustainable management of the entire Cook Islands ocean territory.

The marine protected areas extend 50 nautical miles from the island’s beaches. No large-scale commercial fishing and no seabed mining activities will be allowed in these areas. The Marae Moana Act also states that any economic activity outside the 50 nautical mile zones must be consistent with the primary objective of the act, which is “to protect the biodiversity and heritage values of our marine environment,” Evans says.

Related: Two friends share the Goldman Environmental Prize

Conservation has long been ingrained in the native Cook Islanders' Maori culture. It is called ra’ui.

“Ra'ui is a traditional practice where the harvesting of natural resources is banned for certain periods to build up those resources in order to have them at a later date."

Jacqueline Evans, conservationist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Cook Islands

“Ra'ui is a traditional practice where the harvesting of natural resources is banned for certain periods to build up those resources in order to have them at a later date,” Evans explains. “People are used to the concept of ra'ui, so they understand the importance of closing off areas and allowing natural resources to multiply. Ra’ui helped people understand what Marae Moana was going to be about and what it's for.”

Evans facilitated consultations with communities and other stakeholders, including traditional leaders from the islands. One of the legislation’s champions was Kevin Iro, a rugby league celebrity in the Cook Islands. He and Evans traveled together around the islands to talk with communities about the need to protect the country’s surrounding oceans.

Two men in water net-fishing at dusk.

Net fishing on Aitutaki Island, Cook Islands. Coral reef fisheries like this are threatened by climate change, Aitutaki Island, Sept. 10, 2012. 

Credit:

Lauren-Kristine Pryzant/Wikimedia Commons

The Cook Islands government has surveillance systems in place to enforce the law within the entire Marae Moana area and keep an eye out for illegal fishing, Evans says.

“Any vessel that's fishing within our large ocean territory has to carry transponders, so our Ministry of Marine Resources can see where they're located at any time. ... They can tell what activities they're doing, so they know when they're fishing and when they're not fishing.”

Jacqueline Evans, conservationist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Cook Islands

“Any vessel that's fishing within our large ocean territory has to carry transponders, so our Ministry of Marine Resources can see where they're located at any time,” Evans explains. “They can tell what activities they're doing, so they know when they're fishing and when they're not fishing.”

Patrol vessels work together with aerial surveillance, Evans says. Various countries help with the aerial surveillance, including the United States, France, New Zealand and Australia, who notify Cook Island officials when there are boats in the water that shouldn't be there.

Evans says she never let herself think that she and her fellow activists had won until the legislation actually passed in Parliament.

“Once it was passed through Parliament, then I let myself celebrate and say, ‘Hey, wow! We did this!’” Evans says. “It was pretty much holding my breath up until then. It was at least five years of holding my breath."

Evans is now the director of the Marae Moana Coordination Office.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Related Stories