Jacqueline Evans

2019 Goldman Prize Recipient
Islands and Island Nations

  • Cook Islands
  • Oceans & Coasts

Conservationist Jacqueline Evans led a five-year grassroots campaign to protect the Cook Islands’ stunning marine biodiversity. Because of her tireless and persistent organizing, in July 2017, the Cook Islands enacted new legislation—Marae Moana—to sustainably manage and conserve all 763,000 square miles of the country’s ocean territory, including the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs) 50 nautical miles around the islands, protecting 125,000 square miles of ocean from large-scale commercial fishing and seabed mining. This is the first Prize for the Cook Islands.

Better management of marine resources

The Cook Islands are spread among 15 small islands over 763,000 square miles in the south Pacific Ocean. Traditional Polynesian ways of life are built around subsistence fishing and deep cultural and economic ties to the ocean. The Cooks’ ocean territory is rich with marine biodiversity, including whales, sea turtles, manta rays, seabirds, several threatened shark species, and migrating humpback whales.

Although known as an idyllic tourist destination, the Cook Islands’ government depends heavily on revenue from licensing foreign vessels to fish tuna in its waters. But Cook Islanders feared that overfishing was damaging their ocean waters and livelihoods. Residents of the northern islands have been especially worried that commercial fishing vessels, which approached within 12 nautical miles of the islands, were harming their marine environment.

In 2012, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna announced a commitment to marine protection, proposing that the southern end of the Cook Islands exclusive economic zone (EEZ) become an MPA. While the announcement generated excitement, there were concerns that plans for the future MPA excluded protection for the Cooks’ main large-scale commercial fishing grounds, located along the northern islands. Clearly, the plan required additional advocacy, education, and leg-work to become real.

An advocate for her islands

Jacqueline Evans, 48, is a marine conservationist dedicated to the protection of the Cook Islands. The youngest of seven children, she was raised in New Zealand by a Cook Islander mother and English father and moved back to the Cook Islands when she was 15 years old. Evans started her career as a fisheries surveillance officer for the Ministry of Marine Resources and then as a conservation officer at the Cook Islands Conservation Service. Subsequently, she worked for the Cook Island News, the World Wildlife Fund, the Ministry of Health (where she addressed the impacts of wastewater on the marine environment), and as director of the Te Ipukarea Society, the country’s first environmental NGO.

Navigating the obstacles to conservation

Committed to making the MPA a reality, Evans made it her priority to build public support for its creation. She traveled great distances with a team of government, NGO, and traditional leaders throughout the Cook Islands, which are spread across 763,000 square miles of seascape, to meet with communities and build trust. Evans discussed the vision for the MPA, listened to community priorities, and talked about the importance of boosting ra’ui—the traditional Polynesian approach to marine management, which is a system of taboos and protections. Evans hired a legal advisor for guidance on the inclusion of ra’ui in the management of the MPA. She worked with her team to organize a public name and logo competition, from which “Marae Moana” (“Sacred Ocean”) was devised.

Evans had to overcome resistance and skepticism about the plan for Marae Moana. Dependent on revenue from fishing licenses, some Cook Islands government officials initially opposed the plan. Additionally, while Evans was organizing for Marae Moana, the Marine Resources Ministry authorized new license agreements for fishing inside the proposed protected area—undermining the effort to create the MPA. This sparked public outrage and protest marches, a highly unusual phenomenon in Polynesian society.

During the campaign, Evans developed a partnership with Kevin Iro, a local rugby star, who proposed the MPA concept to the government and worked with Evans for the Marae Moana Establishment Trust to facilitate the establishment of Marae Moana. Evans organized the drafting of legislation, brought in global experts on MPA design and implementation, and persevered to keep the process going.

Despite the hurdles, on July 13, 2017, Evan’s five-year campaign succeeded. The government enacted the Marae Moana Act, mandating the sustainable management of the Cooks’ entire ocean territory—763,000 square miles—and simultaneously creating 15 MPAs—exclusion zones with a higher degree of protection, covering 125,000 square miles. Banning large-scale commercial fishing and seabed mining within 50 nautical miles of the 15 Cook Islands, the 15 MPAs encompass 16% of the country’s ocean territory.

Today, in her role as director of the Marae Moana Coordination Office, Evans is creating regulations and a national Marae Moana spatial plan to ensure that Marae Moana is implemented and that the whole of the Cooks’ ocean territory is sustainably managed.

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