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Cook Islands Create World’s Largest Safe Haven for Sharks

Cook Islands Create World’s Largest Safe Haven for Sharks

Today (Wed. 12 Dec), the Cook Islands declared the entire 1.997 million sq. km (771,000 sq. miles) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area the size of Mexico, a sanctuary for sharks, rays and all elasmobranchs.

In doing so, the island nation has adopted the strongest shark conservation regulations to date, banning the targeting, sale, trade and possession of sharks aboard all commercial fishing or transshipment vessels within its EEZ. The Cook Islands adopted these regulations after a long, hard-fought grassroots campaign, led by Rarotonga-based NGO, the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI).

The announcement comes just days after French Polynesia decided to include the Mako shark as part of their 8-year moratorium on shark fishing. The Cook Islands and French Polynesia’s combined 6.7 million sq. km (954,000 sq. mile) EEZs now connect with those of American Samoa and Tokelau to create the largest contiguous shark protection area in the world.

“These regulations simplify enforcement by removing the need for fishermen, observers and enforcement officers to identify sharks, and eliminates loopholes previously in place under [Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission] regulations, which were used by some commercial fishing vessels to continue to exploit sharks,” said PICI Founder Stephen Lyon.

“It was a massive team effort, to which we are so proud to have been a part,” said PICI Program Manager Jess Cramp. “The entire Cook Islands community really fought for this, and I can’t say enough thanks to the individuals who gave their time, effort and resources to protect sharks, and to the Cook Islands government for listening,” said Cramp.

Many local island councils, groups, schools and individuals joined the effort circulating a petition, making posters, giving public service announcements, and writing letters to Prime Minister Henry Puna, advocating for the protection of sharks from the recent influx of Asian fishing vessels—some of which are known for the destructive practice of shark finning. This devastating practice is causing the rapid decline of shark populations worldwide.

PICI’s shark sanctuary campaign spanned over a year and-a-half, garnering support along the way from the international community and organizations like the Pew Environment Group. PICI, represented by Michael Balster, an environmental attorney with Paul Hastings LLC, worked closely with the Cook Islands government to propose the shark conservation regulations. “Increasingly, the international community is adopting broad measures to protect sharks from commercial fishing practices that threaten their very survival”, says Balster. “It has been very rewarding to represent PICI in its work with the Cook Islands government and community to address this critical environmental issue.”
The government’s shark sanctuary declaration follows its announcement at the Pacific Leaders Forum that it intends to create a large marine park in the Cook Island’s southern waters. The U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, addressed the Forum and was photographed showing support for the Cook Islands’ shark conservation efforts.

The Honorable Teina Bishop, the Minister of Marine Resources, announced in Parliament the Cabinet’s approval of the regulations: “We are proud as Cook Islanders to provide our entire exclusive economic zone, an area of 1.997 million square kilometers as a shark sanctuary,” said Bishop. “Together with our Polynesian neighbor, Tahiti Nui (French Polynesia), we have created the largest shark sanctuary in the World. We join our Pacific neighbors to protect this animal, which is very vital to the health of our oceans, and our culture.” Bishop proclaimed that “The introduction of these Shark Sanctuary Regulations means that the people of the Cook Islands can feel very proud that our nation is now a global leader in environment protection in terms of our Marine Resources and shows quite clearly that we are managing our fisheries in a very responsible way.”

The Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative is a Rarotonga-based charitable trust, which seeks to develop a society that works in the tropical Pacific to preserve species, habitats, and communities through the provision of sound science, establishment of programs and advocacy for legislative protection.

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