How can we best protect Suwarrow?

Monday March 05, 2018 Written by Published in Environment

BirdLife International is a global partnership of conservation organisations (NGOs) that strives to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, while working with people towards sustainability in the use of natural resources. They are the largest and most influential bird conservation organisation in the world.


At present there are 121 BirdLife Partners worldwide – one per country or territory – and growing. Te Ipukarea Society is the BirdLife representative in the Cook Islands.

From February 19 to 23, Te Ipukarea Society project officers Alanna Smith and Liam Kokaua attended a capacity building workshop in Suva, Fiji, on ‘Targeting Sites for Conservation and Land Management’. The workshop was hosted by the BirdLife Pacific secretariat in Suva, which is the Pacific Regional branch of BirdLife International.

Workshop attendees included Te Ipukarea Society and NatureFiji-Mareqeti Fiji staff, who are the BirdLife partner for Fiji. Also attending were staff from the Pacific Regional secretariat, who were there to provide guidance to the two groups, including the BirdLife Pacific director Margaret West, and Advocacy and Campaigning expert Margaret Quixley of BirdLife Australia.

To start, the groups were asked to identify one key issue which currently threatens biodiversity in their own country.

The Fiji team chose human-initiated fires, which are often used to clear agricultural crops. The fires can and do burn out of control and spread to native forests, where they destroy the already limited forest habitat for native Fijian species.

Fires also gradually decrease the fertility of the soil, which means there will be shorter times until farmers need to move on to new land, further exacerbating the problem. Although we don’t have this issue of out-of-control fires in the Cook Islands – burning of household plastic is definately a problem here though! – it was very beneficial for the TIS team to see how Fiji worked out a strategic plan to address this issue during the course of the week.

Liam and Alanna deliberated for some time on their topic. They considered the recent rumours of hunting of native birds for consumption on Rarotonga, and other issues.

They also consulted with stakeholders back in Rarotonga, including the National Environment Service and Marae Moana office, before settling on their topic: How can we improve the protected area status of Suwarrow?

The reason for choosing this topic was because, according to some sources, Suwarrow National Park is not officially a protected area under Cook Islands legislation. It can also be argued that only the land area is protected, leaving the lagoon and ocean vulnerable.

How is this possible? Suwarrow was declared a national park under the Conservation Act of 1975, but that act was repealed and replaced with a new Conservation Act in 2000.

According to a legal opinion TIS obtained at the time, there were no clauses in the new act to ensure continuation of the national park status. However, the fact that the national park status was not repealed in the new act suggested that it was still protected.

So the TIS team decided that they should determine once and for all what the legal status was. Fortunately the Marae Moana Act does now confirm some protection from foreign fishing out to 50 nautical miles from the atoll.

So what are the threats to Suwarrow which make protected area status necessary?

A number of yachts (around 150) visit the atoll each year, normally coming through French Polynesia to the east, heading towards islands such as Tonga, Samoa and Fiji in the west.

Although the National Environment Service (NES) caretakers are present to act as conservation and biosecurity officers, the number of yachties visiting the island is expected to grow in the future.

There are also a number of yachts which visit Suwarrow without permission during the cyclone season when the caretakers have left. During these periods there is no one regulating what these visitors may be bringing or dumping on the island in terms of invasive species.

As TIS is planning to complete the rat eradication work on Suwarrow this year (which they started in 2013), getting these formal protection measures in place will be important to ensure the risk of re-introduction of rats and other species is minimised.

Determining the formal protected area designation for Suwarrow is also important due to the conservation and development risks it has faced and will likely face in the future.

These include introduction of invasive species from yachties, locals and perhaps even cruise ships if they were to ever gain access to Suwarrow.

Development risks include potential black pearl farming within its lagoon, as there was a government proposal to create a government-owned pearl farm in the late 1990s.

After firmly establishing the legal designation of our ‘National Park’, then the next move would be to establish a management plan for the park, as well as work with NES to ensure regular monitoring of the seabird populations in future years, in the wake of the rat eradication planned for this year.

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