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.
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.
“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."
“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.
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.”
“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.