The Cook Islands is a tiny island country in the South Pacific with a total land area of just 93 square miles that form 15 islands. The ocean territory of the islands is far larger and is home to coral reefs and many marine species. Until recently, the rich biodiverse area was at risk of overfishing  . Only in 2015, catch value only for tuna reached US$357 million .
But since 2012, traditional Māori leaders help organize a grassroots movement that would pass a law called the Morea Moana — or “Sacred Ocean" — Act. The act would include 15 marine protected areas of the Cook Islands ocean territory . The entire territorial waters is an area of almost 2 million square kilometers (772,200 square miles). Marae Moana Act would also include more strictly protected areas close to each of the 15 islands where commercial fishing and seabed mining would be strictly prohibited . Thanks to the grassroots effort, the Morea Moana act was finally adopted in 2017.
“Fishing is not managed by the owners of the resource,” a protester says, scrolling through reports on a laptop bearing a “WTF?! Where’s the Fish?” sticker. “It’s managed by a collection of exploiters of the resource and owners of the resource, and we [the people] are not getting real consensus” .
Marae Moana Act is based on the Ra'ui - a traditional environmental practice where the harvesting of natural resources is banned for certain periods "in order to have them at a later date”. It allows seeing and practicing the importance of closing off areas and allowing natural resources to recover .
Traditional Ra’ui are not written down, though sometimes have a visual symbol, such as a coconut leaf tied around a tree, symbolizing the protected area. “If you see a coconut leaf crawling [into the Ra’ui area], you don’t go and collect it” . “Any part of the island you can harvest; anything on the ground, you can collect, but the marked part you leave, because we need something to support us all later .
Furthermore, seabed mining has always been a sticking economic point throughout the history of Cook Islands. Many government ministers and officials are keen to pursue mining because of the potential for lucrative economic gains. Parts of the country’s seafloor are rich in manganese nodules, and the mineral is increasingly in demand globally for batteries to power technologies such as electric cars .
Manganese nodules are rocky lumps up to 10cm in size that sit on the seafloor at more than 5,000m below sea level. They are made up of many minerals including iron and manganese oxides as well as other commercially sought after metals such as Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Titanium, Vanadium and Rare Earth Elements. Occurring over large expanses of the abyssal plains at depths of 4,000-6,000m, nodules of up to 15cm diameter form through precipitation from the surrounding seawater or sediment waters over millions of years .
The proponents of seabed mining argue it can provide minerals critical to renewable energy industries with little waste. But environmentalists arguing for caution say little is known about the deep ocean and even less about the potential environmental impacts of mining it .
On Sept. 20, 2019, one of the members of the grassroots organization Marae Moana and marine scientist, Jacqueline Evans, was dismissed from a position as director of the Cook Islands’ world-renowned Marae Moana marine protected area, a position the member held since the Marae Moana was enshrined into law in 2017. Her firing came after she expressed support for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining across the Pacific Ocean. Evans was a 2019 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize for grassroots environmentalists in recognition of her work to make Marae Moana a reality . “This is a strange arrangement, considering I’m meant to be the coordinator of Marae Moana and policy advisor to the Marae Moana Council." - she declared .
The Marae Moana Act allows the possibility of mining to be explored but only in sites where it would not severely impact ocean ecosystems. Thorough research on such impacts and site exploration would require at least ten years of research, according to Evans .