French Polynesia’s Austral Islands Propose New Marine Reserve

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At approximately 1 million square kilometers, an Austral Islands marine reserve would be the world’s largest fully protected area. The proposal was presented by the five municipalities of the Austral Islands at a news conference in Tahiti.

The Polynesian practice of rāhui restricts access to an area or resource to conserve it for the well-being of the whole community

A marine reserve of this magnitude would add to the growing movement by Pacific island governments to protect their waters

The communities of the Austral Islands yesterday presented a proposal to the government of French Polynesia for a marine reserve in their waters that would be the largest fully protected area on Earth at 1 million square kilometers. The islanders are asking for this reserve to help maintain healthy fish stocks to feed their families and support local fishermen while maintaining Polynesian customs that date back hundreds of years. The Austral Islands have one of the healthiest marine ecosystems on the planet, in large part because of the use of traditional conservation techniques.

The reserve would be named Rāhui Nui Nō Tuhaa Pae, or “the big rāhui of the Austral Islands,” referring to the traditional Polynesian practice of rāhui, which restricts access to an area or resource to conserve it. This name was first proposed by the “wisemen” committee of Rapa Island, the customary authority on the southernmost of the seven islands, and considered the guardian of the rāhui custom.

Currently, the practice of rāhui on Rapa provides protection only to coastal species. However, local communities now see the importance of safeguarding offshore species by using the same methods at a larger scale.

“In the 1980s, we witnessed overfishing along our coastlines as modern fishing techniques and freezers arrived to our island,” said Tuanainai Narii, the mayor of Rapa. “We brought our fish stocks back to healthy levels by reinstating a coastal rāhui. Now we see what is happening in the larger Pacific and recognize that more must be done to conserve pelagic fish stocks, which is why we are calling for this marine reserve as a big rāhui on the open ocean.”

Fish stocks are collapsing in the Pacific, and most of the main commercial species are overfished. For example, bigeye tuna populations have decreased by 84 percent. The Austral Islands are one of the last untouched fish reservoirs in the Pacific.

The islanders identified four main objectives for the proposed reserve: preserving habitats and marine resources for the long term; managing use conflicts among stakeholders; enhancing the cultural heritage of the Austral Islands and developing ecotourism; and raising awareness about the importance of conserving marine resources.

In 2014, the municipal councils of the islands approved a resolution calling for "creation of a large marine reserve in the Australs’ exclusive economic zone beyond traditional fishing areas.” The proposal to create the marine reserve has now been submitted to the government of French Polynesia by the municipalities of the Austral Islands with support from the Federation of the Polynesian Environmental Associations (FAPE) and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“It was very important to consult the entire population to find out what people want for their waters. Through meetings and interviews in each village of each island, everyone was able to contribute. The proposed marine reserve is really a community-led effort by and for the population of the Austral Islands,” said Frère Maxime, an influential figure in French Polynesia who is vice president of FAPE.

The Austral Islands make up the southernmost archipelago of French Polynesia and are home to about 6,800 residents on five inhabited islands: Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae, and Rapa. The islands’ relative isolation has resulted in a high number of species unique to the archipelago’s waters. For example, of the 455 species of mollusk found there, more than 20 percent—98 species—are endemic. The region also hosts three species of sea turtles, 10 species of marine mammals, 14 species of sharks, four species of rays, and 60 pelagic fish species. The island of Rurutu is one of the best places on Earth to observe humpback whales, and the lagoon and 28 coral islets of Raivavae are natural wonders with dramatic seascapes.

Less than 2 percent of French Polynesia’s industrial fishing takes place in Austral waters, totaling about 90 tons per year. Local fishermen typically employ traditional methods to meet food needs, using small boats less than 10 meters long. In the marine reserve proposal, fishing would still be permitted out to 20 nautical miles around each island, encompassing the area used by local fishermen, who rarely fish beyond this zone.

“French Polynesia already has the biggest marine mammal and shark sanctuary in the world. Creation of this large marine reserve would confirm the territory’s status as a leader in ocean conservation,” said Jérôme Petit, who directs Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy campaign in French Polynesia. “A marine reserve of this magnitude would add to the growing movement by Pacific island governments to protect their waters to improve the health of the ocean.”

In 2015, more ocean area was designated to be set aside as fully protected marine reserves than during any other year in history with the announcements of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, the Easter Island Marine Park, the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, and the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. Still, even with these successes, only about 2 percent of the ocean is fully protected today.

French Polynesia pledged in 2013 to protect at least 20 percent of its waters by 2020. Designation of this marine reserve would fulfill its commitment and help meet broader scientific targets for protecting at least 30 percent of the ocean.

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Andrea Risotto
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