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What the world can learn from a tiny South Pacific island nation

New docu-film highlights Niue's successful marine conservation through the fusion of traditional knowledge and science


Map courtesy of Pristine Seas

 By Jayvee Vallejera


Niue, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific, has preserved nearly half of its waters, in a bold initiative that paid off.


“What we’re doing here, it’s not only for Niueans, but we’re showing to the rest of the world that it can be done,” said Dalton Tagelagi, the premier of Niue, about his nation’s audacious conservation efforts. “Yes we are small, but we’re showing the way.”


Data about global warming’s disastrous effects on the ocean can feel bleak, but a new film, "Protecting Paradise: The Story of Niue," provides glimmers of hope during World Ocean Month.


Nieu's remarkable conservation feats are highlighted in a new documentary that will premiere on June 7 at 10 p.m. EDT/9 p.m. CDT on the National Geographic Channel.


The documentary —which will launch to audiences worldwide on June 8 on Video on Demand/Hulu/Disney+ in observance of World Ocean Day— follows leaders and community members from the tropical Pacific island nation who are making bold changes to move the needle on marine protection.


At just about 100 square miles in size, a population of under 2,000 people and a marine reserve covering 40 percent of its waters, Niue has demonstrated how traditional knowledge and contemporary science can live in harmony for the benefit of people and the planet.


A self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, Niue has a long tradition of employing management practices to keep its waters in good condition. The Niueans' knowledge of the sea is critical to their livelihoods and to the protection of the island’s marine ecosystem.

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Shot and produced by National Geographic Pristine Seas during a scientific expedition to Niue in 2023, the film brings viewers onto its research vessel, where international and local team members investigate the health of the Moana Mahu Marine Protected Area and its crown jewel, the Beveridge Reef, three years after it was created.


Encompassing 40 percent of the nation’s waters, the reserve covers 127,000 square kilometers and Beveridge Reef itself is home to the highest density of gray reef sharks in the world.


Dan Myers of Pristine Seas, who has spent some time in Niue, said the government of Niue and non-profit groups Tofia Niue and Oceans 5 first invited their team to the island country in 2016 to help survey and document its unique underwater environment in an effort to ensure the long-term sustainable use of its resources. 


The Pristine Seas team returned in 2023 at the request of the Nieu government, to resurvey the health of the Moana Mahu Marine Protected Area, fill data gaps, and support the ongoing management of the country’s marine reserve.


“Witnessing the ways in which protection changed the marine ecosystem was something we needed to share with the world via this documentary. The scientists and filmmakers witness stunning color and epic marine life, leaving viewers in awe about how only a few years of protection has restored the underwater landscape,” he said.


Niue is a raised coral atoll ted in the South Pacific between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. It lies 120 nautical miles southeast of the main island is remote Beveridge Reef, a submerged atoll (visible only at low tide) that harbors a significant array of marine life. In its shallow lagoon, protected from the heaving seas, gray reef sharks, 80-pound groupers, moray eels, wrasses, and puffer fish swim above colorful corals in pristine condition.

 

Fish from Niue's waters/Screen grab

“This film offers a rare glimpse into the stunning marine life surrounding Niue—a nation formed by one of the largest raised coral atolls on Earth,” said Enric Sala, National Geographic explorer in residence and executive director of Pristine Seas. “Protecting 40 percent of its waters has reaped clear benefits and we hope others will follow Niue’s lead in conserving vital swaths of the ocean before it’s too late.”


Though Niue sits on a landmass less than half the size of Chicago, its exclusive economic zone is significant. Home to a wide array of diverse species like humpback whales and the katuali—a sea snake found only in Niue that dwells in the country’s coastal caves—local leadership and conservationists recognized the island’s unique and vibrant oceanscape as a key place to protect.


“We all feel like salt water runs through our veins. The ocean is the life force that made us. And made Niue. We owe our existence to the ocean. And that’s why we fight to protect it,” said Coral Pasisi, President of Tofia Niue.


Commercial fishing and other damaging activities are banned in marine protected areas, which eventually give back to communities in multitudes. They restore marine life within their boundaries and replenish nearby fish populations.


Subsequently, local fishing improves, providing jobs and economic benefits, while building resilience against a warming ocean. 


"Protecting Paradise: The Story of Niue" explores the ways in which these benefits come to life and the special meaning the ocean has to the people who live on and near it.


In September 2023, Niue led the way in Pacific Ocean conservation by launching its award-winning sustainable funding initiative that offers individuals and organizations the opportunity to sponsor a small portion of its marine sanctuary via Niue’s Ocean Conservation Commitments, or OCC.


Through the program, anyone in the world can sponsor the protection of a square kilometer of the Moana Mahu Marine Protected Area, offering invaluable protection that will extend across Niue and beyond. As part of its leadership, the government of Niue acted as the first contributor—sponsoring one OCC for each of its citizens.

 



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