Largest Marine Sanctuary In The World Has Plans To Get Even Bigger — Here’s Where It’s Located

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Rāhui Nui Nō Tuha’a PaePhoto credit: Grégory Lecoeur / Tahiti Tourisme

French Polynesia (also known as the Islands of Tahiti) has served as home to the world’s largest marine sanctuary for 2 decades. The groundwork has been laid to expand the sanctuary to reach half a million square kilometers (193,051 square miles) by 2030.

French Polynesian President Édouard Fritch recently committed to creating the new large-scale marine protected area and establishing artisanal fishing zones around each of Tahiti’s 118 islands. This will curb industrial fishing by about 20 percent. The goal is to maintain healthy fish stocks to feed island families and support local fishermen, while maintaining Polynesian customs that are an integral part of their culture.

The reserve would be named Rāhui Nui Nō Tuha’a Pae, or “the big rāhui of the Austral Islands.” This refers to the traditional Polynesian practice of rāhui, which is restricting access to an area or resource to conserve it. Per Tuanainai Narii, mayor of Rapa Island, “Polynesians are a people of the sea. The ocean connects our islands and our people. In the Austral Islands, everyone fishes to feed themselves and their families.”

Where Is The Marine Sanctuary?

The Austral Islands, in the South Pacific, make up the southernmost archipelago of French Polynesia and are home to about 6,800 residents on five inhabited islands: Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae, and Rapa. The islands’ relative isolation has resulted in a high number of species unique to the archipelago’s waters.

Why Is An Expanded Rahui (Sanctuary) So Important?

Fish stocks are collapsing in the Pacific and most of the main commercial species are overfished. For example, bigeye tuna populations have decreased by 84 percent. The Austral Islands are one of the last untouched fish reservoirs in the Pacific.

The region hosts three species of sea turtles, 10 species of marine mammals, 14 species of sharks, four species of rays, and 60 pelagic fish species. The island of Rurutu is one of the best places on Earth to observe humpback whales, and the lagoon and 28 coral islets of Raivavae are natural wonders with magical seascapes. Of the 455 species of mollusk found in the Austral Islands, more than 20 percent — 98 species — can only be found there.

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