RAROTONGA, Cook Islands — At certain times of the year, Puna Rakanui’s grandfather used to travel to a favorite fishing spot and return with his canoe full of decapitated tuna. “He would tell us kids, ‘When you take fish out of the ocean, you must give something back,’” Rakanui said. “So he would chop the head off the tuna, tie a rock to it and sink it. To feed the fish. ‘That’s for tomorrow,’ he’d say.”
In the decades since, that conservative attitude waned among residents of the Cook Islands, and alongside it the health and abundance of the archipelago’s marine habitats. Commercial fishing vessels exploited the deep ocean, while many of the islands’ lagoons were overfished and polluted by locals and tourists alike. Then, in 2017, something changed. The Cook Islands government passed the Marae Moana Act, which designated the country’s entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as a multiple-use marine protected area (MPA). Spanning almost 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) — an area roughly the size of Mexico — it’s the biggest of its kind in the world. The intent was essentially to shift marine governance back into alignment with the attitude of Rakanui’s grandfather.