What Lies Beneath – by Matapuku Robati

The following assignment was written by Matapuku Robati, a student in our science communication undergraduate course.


Weather, holiday packages, resorts, vacation, and accommodation: these are among the top five Google searches related to the Cook Islands. When I speak with family, friends and work colleagues with reference to my homeland, similar subjects emerge in the conversation: “retirement, vacation, weddings, family reunions, titles and family land”. When I ask if anyone has heard of the Cook Islands Marine Park? I receive a mixture of answers. All of them were unaware that in 2012 Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna declared more than half the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) a Marine Park – now known as Marae Moana, one of the largest in the world. The Marine Park is in its final stages of development involving various stake holders and specialists working together, a not-too-common alliance of industry and the public.

As a teenager, I had the opportunity to spend some time with my Papa in the capital of Rarotonga. Although many memories of that time now seem hazy, certain experiences have not escaped me. I spent days covered in a warm blanket of tropical ocean where the lagoon and its inhabitants became familiar friends. The rocks and reef resembled streets as my Papa warned me of which marine neighbourhoods to avoid and which individuals in them should be left alone. He took the time to explain the tradition of Rahui which, in pre-colonial societies of the Cook Islands, was a traditional system used to manage areas set aside with certain restrictions, for the purpose of conserving species or resource that were under pressure. He would show me the boundaries of certain no-take areas, but would also boast of secret fishing spots way beyond the reef by referencing landmarks and certain currents. I was also shown how to harvest certain species of sea snail within the lagoon and on the reef such as; kauri, trocus and conch for artisanal purposes, used in traditional ceremonies and for sale at the local market. It was as obvious to me then as it is to me now that the people there were very much aware of their environment and the resources with which they have depended on for generations. It is with this in mind that I see the importance of the development of Marae Moana in protecting marine species and resources, whilst preserving the traditions and values of the Cook Islands peoples that have developed alongside this resource.

The Cook Islands lie approximately 3,000 km north-east of New Zealand amidst the Polynesian triangle, a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand consisting of 15 islands and atolls. It was first settled by Pacific Island seafarers from the nearby islands of Tahiti and Samoa in the 13th century. The country now bears the name of British explorer, navigator, and cartographer Captain James Cook who visited the islands in 1773. The Cook Islands totals 240 sq km of land whilst having an EEZ that is approximately 1,830,000 sq km in size. The EEZ is an area of water prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the sea that spans 200 nautical miles around the coast of the Islands. This gives the Cook Islands exclusive rights over the exploration and use of marine resources within this zone. Industry has had the opportunity to capitalize on the resource within the EEZ with commercial fishing of Tuna and Pearl farming being one of the country’s main exports. Approximately 1,100,000 sq km of the EEZ, about the size of France and Spain combined, has been designated a Marine Park named Marae Moana to promote sustainable development that balances both economic growth whilst conserving biodiversity and natural assets. This seems an ambitious task for a developing nation but with roughly 75% of its GDP coming by way of tourism it makes sense to preserve its waters in as pristine a state that is advertised to this market.

In the spirit of the country’s name sake, the people of the Cook Islands have endeavoured to create a series of maps of the seabed in and around the Cook Islands EEZ in an effort to develop how Marae Moana will be managed. Maps outlining particular habitats, no-take fishing, restricted fishing and potential Deep Sea Mining Zones have been created via a Geographic Information System (GIS) known as Seasketch. The initiative stemmed from the mind of New Zealand rugby league great Kevin Iro. Kevin, also of Cook Islands descent, grew up in Auckland but visited the Islands frequently throughout his life and noticed over time the changes happening within the waters of the Cook Islands; fishermen were catching fewer fish, coral was dying and invasive species were moving in. He wanted to build one of the world’s largest marine parks in the hope of addressing some of the issues presented by both industry and local pressures upon the biodiversity and natural resources within the Cook Islands waters. A steering committee was formed to gather information from locals and various interest groups using Seasketch to create maps to share how they would like the resource to be managed.

Like a child enthused to be meeting his idols for the first time, it was with nervous anticipation that I awaited a Skype interview with Kevin Iro and Cook Islands conservation champion Jacqueline Evans, both apart of the Marae Moana Steering committee. In another time the conversation would have easily been about Kevin’s rugby league exploits but today was about much more, about an initiative to preserve the life and resources within our oceans for future generations. The agreed meeting time of 11am rolls around, anxiety gets the better of me and I hesitate to press the video call icon. But as I hesitate, the call from Kevin comes to me, “dang it” I think to myself. But a sigh of relief quickly comes over me because due to a bad connection we are only able to voice chat and I don’t have to deal with the awkward feeling of being stared at by an idol of mine in my onesie. We exchange pleasantries and the interview commences.

Kevin describes political will as being the most challenging in the development of Marae Moana. There is a general understanding across the board that conservation of biodiversity and natural resources is needed. However set against the economic benefits of current fisheries and the potential future benefits of Deep-Sea Mining (DSM) of the ocean floor Kevin admits, “being able to convince people at a political level that a balance is needed is probably the main challenge”.

“There is always a small minority that overharvest. It seems to be increasingly common now, when people are just taking what they want. I think because our traditional systems have broken down quite a bit, so the respect for the lagoon just is not there anymore”. Jacqueline has been working to see various conservation initiatives implemented throughout the Cook Islands for over 20 years. She hopes that Marae Moana policy will address this behaviour as well as local concerns about commercial seine fishing, a method of net fishing that resembles a bag when enclosing the catch, and use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FAD), “they are not happy about foreign fishing boats taking fish out of their waters”. Jacqueline hopes to have a draft of the marine park policy written up by October 2014. However with political uncertainty, the country has yet to establish a governing caucus after a recount in July’s elections, these obstacles obscure progress in finalizing Marae Moana Policy.

Exploitation of seabed minerals has the potential to provide the Cook Islands with enormous economic benefits. According to the governments seabed minerals authority an estimated 10 billion tons of manganese nodules lies within the Cook Islands EEZ, located in the Penrhyn Basin. Manganese nodules are found in abundance in four regions of the Ocean: Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ); Peru Basin; Penrhyn Basin; and the Indian Ocean, as detailed in the 2014 world ocean review.

Manganese nodules range in size from that of a potato to a head of lettuce. Formation occurs when dissolved metal compounds in the sea water, from hydrothermal vents, precipitate over time around a core of biogenic material and settles on the seafloor. This core for example could be a sharks tooth or a fragment of clam shell around which the nodules grow. The nodules lie scattered numerously on the seafloor like sesame seeds on a bun, at depths of 3500 to 6500 meters where tremendous pressure, deep-sea currents and millions of years are needed for them to grow.

Nodules are composed primarily of manganese and iron, including lower concentrations of cobalt, copper nickel and rare earth elements that are of economic interest to industry for various key technologies such as: microchips; LED and plasma screens; electronic motors, wind turbine generators; and smartphones. As land deposits of these elements become scarce mining of the deep sea is a very real prospect.

Deep Sea Mining (DSM) is a new frontier and is yet to be initiated anywhere in the world. Kelvin Passfield, director of the Cook Islands environmental NGO “Te Ipukarea Society” voices shared concern, “There is very little science available at present but, as an environmental watchdog for the Cook Islands, we want this science to be available before the mining starts. It is looking likely that the only way science will be done will be as a part of exploratory mining.  This is because the cost of doing research is so high at such depths (4000m plus)”.

Kevin and Jacqueline were part of the Marae Moana steering committee that conducted public consultation on behalf of the government around the Cook Islands to give locals a chance to voice their opinions about the marine park and competing interests. Many were in support of Marae Moana concept, particularly in the outer islands where the practice of “Rahui” is still strong. The general public could see the potential benefits of DSM but an underlying tone of concern in regards to the limited research and impact it might have on their way of life was evident.

My way of life and the technology that I utilize; the consumer I am that desires the latest smartphone on the market demands the resources that lie beneath our oceans. This could provide a way for developing nations like the Cook Islands to emulate our western lifestyles by boosting its economy, but could also drastically alter the marine environment and the Cook Islands way of life that has developed alongside it.  As a New Zealand born Cook Islander I am concerned with the exploitation and development by industry within Cook Islands waters and within all other oceanscapes. I am also concerned with my personal consumption of certain technologies that drives the demand to exploit these resources. I am concerned with my consumption of seafood that is obtained commercially from similar environments such as the Cook Islands. However I am now more conscious of my personal consumption and the greater implications it has on the environment. With initiatives like Marae Moana that utilises education and partnerships to raise public awareness, informed decisions can be made by all. And as a result of Marae Moana I am now more aware of these issues and have hope that I too will be able to point my children to the same treasures that were shown to me by my Papa.

Marae Moana – our sacred home of the Sea.



Marae Moana – Twitter: Cook Is. Marine Park @marae moana; Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/maraemoana

Seasketch website: http://www.seasketch.org/#projecthomepage/50c911f27315b72f321d5609/about

Te Ipukarea Society website: – http://tiscookislands.org

Cook Islands Seabed and minerals authority: http://www.seabedmineralsauthority.gov.ck/index.php/seabed-minerals-in-the-cook-islands

Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation: http://www.livingoceansfoundation.org/

SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Projecthttp://www.sopac.org/dsm/

World’s Largest Marine Park: Mapping the Blue: http://youtu.be/1fTzilnT2zU

Image title by Deequi.com

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