PAPEETE—The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project applauds the plan announced this month by the government of French Polynesia to protect the marine and natural life of the Austral archipelago—a remote chain of islands and surrounding waters in the South Pacific—by 2023.
The Council of Ministers decided on June 10 to seek biosphere reserve designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the islands of Maria, Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, and Raivavae in the archipelago’s north, and Rapa and Marotiri in the south. The council’s action reflects strong local support for establishing robust marine protections for the archipelago to safeguard biodiversity as well as Indigenous and coastal ways of life. The area could become the largest biosphere reserve in the world, encompassing up to 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles).
Under such a UNESCO designation, the protected waters would remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of French Polynesia, while local communities and stakeholders would be involved in planning and management. Such designated reserves include three types of areas: a strictly protected core, where fishing and extractive activities would be prohibited; a surrounding buffer zone; and a transition area where residents can continue culturally and ecologically sustainable economic and other activities, such as traditional fishing. Currently, there are more than 700 biosphere reserves in 124 countries, spanning 6.8 million square kilometers.
The specifics of the French Polynesia biosphere reserve plan will be developed with input from Austral residents in community meetings to be held next year, with the community feedback used to develop maps in 2022. The French Polynesian government will need to approve the final plan before it is submitted to UNESCO, most likely in 2023.
“For more than five years, elected officials, fishermen, and Austral associations have worked together to promote protection of the archipelago’s marine biodiversity. The French Polynesian government and the people of the Austral Islands deserve applause for taking this latest encouraging step toward preserving these marine ecosystems.”
“The people and government of French Polynesia recognize that their coral reefs, bountiful fish populations, and other marine life are not immune to the mounting threats facing the world’s ocean. By protecting the waters around the Austral Islands and the incredible marine life there, French Polynesia would play an important part in the growing global movement to protect 30% of our ocean, as recommended by scientists and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This is an opportunity to help ensure a healthy and sustainable ocean for generations to come.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bertarelli Foundation joined forces in 2017 to create the project, with the shared goal of establishing the first generation of ecologically significant and effective marine protected areas around the world. This effort builds on a decade of work by both organizations to protect the ocean. Between them, they have helped to obtain designations to safeguard over 8 million square kilometers (3 million square miles) of ocean by working with philanthropic partners, Indigenous groups, community leaders, government officials, and scientists. Since 2010, the Bertarelli Foundation has sought to protect the ocean for future generations through marine conservation and collaborative marine science research.
The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project has supported establishment of a large-scale marine protected area (MPA) in French Polynesia’s Austral Islands as part of a worldwide network to restore ocean health. The project has been working with governments, communities, Indigenous groups, and other partners. It has backed research examining economic and ecologic impacts of a large MPA.
As the project’s work has unfolded in various places across the Pacific Ocean, it has brought together geographically and culturally diverse artists, educators, fishers, former government officials, and traditional voyagers who all seek to protect the unique identities of their island communities. This group, known as the Island Voices, met with the minister for culture and environment of French Polynesia and with Austral islanders in June 2019 to share Polynesian culture and discuss marine conservation opportunities.
The Austral Islands’ isolation and topographic diversity means it continues to have a high endemism rate for certain species. In particular, the island of Rapa is a marine biodiversity hotspot with 112 species of corals, 250 species of mollusks, and 383 species of coastal fish, 10% of which are found nowhere else. Pelagic populations, such as tuna, swordfish, marlins, and salmon, are still well preserved, with little or no local fishing pressure in the archipelago’s southern waters.
The Australs’ cultural heritage is interconnected with the ocean. In 2014, municipal councils on all five islands voted to support creation of a large highly protected marine reserve, following more than 70 public meetings held across the islands to create a proposal. The plan named the reserve Rāhui Nui nō Tuha’a Pae, or ‘the big rāhui of the Austral Islands,’ a Tahitian reference to the Polynesian practice of restricting access to an area or resource to conserve it.
The ‘rahui,’ a traditional measure to conserve natural resources, is firmly anchored in the culture of the archipelago and still practiced by individual communities. In the face of the increasing effects of a changing climate and pressure on fisheries, this local knowledge and tradition can be scaled up to conserve the broader marine ecosystem.