A Kiwi man's dream to establish a shark sanctuary the size of Mexico has been realised in the Cook Islands.
On December 12, the Cook Islands declared its 1997 million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) a sanctuary for sharks and rays - the largest in the world and with the toughest shark conservation regulations to date.
The sanctuary is the product of an 18-month grassroots campaign led by Auckland-born Stephen Lyon, a marine scientist and founder of the Rarotonga-based NGO the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI).
The Auckland University-educated scientist says he had the idea for the conservation project over six years ago, after witnessing how sharks were becoming exploited through his work in the dive business.
"Palau had taken steps to protect sharks and I thought it would be a good thing for the Cook Islands to do as well."
But it wasn't until programme manager Jess Cramp came on board in May last year that the plan was galvanised.
From there PICI worked to secure a "strong political mandate", running consultations with community groups on Rarotonga and the outer islands - enabling them to address concerns about sharks and explain how they are being exploited.
"The culture of the Cook Islands involves theories around sharks and they are often seen as guardians. There's that level of cultural understanding but also in a practical sense for local fisherman around the coast - sharks are seen as pests," he said.
"Working through the consultation process they realised that they are actually part of the ecosystem and not something they ever want to see wiped out."
Of the 18 recorded shark species in Cook Islands waters, 13 are listed as threatened, and five as endangered or vulnerable.
Dwindling numbers in shark populations can be largely attributed to a growing appetite for shark-fin soup, a delicacy popular with the rapidly growing Chinese middle class.
Local councils, schools, groups and individuals all joined the effort to circulate a petition, make announcements, put up posters and write letters to the Prime Minister to advocate shark protection from offshore fishing vessels.
Ms Cramp said the project was a "massive team effort" and something the entire Cook Islands community fought hard for.
Yet despite local support, the campaign was not without its challenges.
"The campaign has been quite extensive, and the most difficult barriers were the unseen ones," said Mr Lyon.
This included pressure from the offshore commercial fishing industry, which Lyon says was felt as a flow-down effect in policy decision-making.
But last week, the government's announcement that it was banning the sale, targeting, trade and possession of sharks aboard all commercial fishing or transhipment vessels within its EEZ made the journey worthwhile.
The new regulations enforce a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $250,000 per offence, the strongest measures available under the Marine Resources Act.
The use of shark targeted fishing gear also comes under the regulations and a second offence will see a loss of fishing licence - "quite a significant penalty", Mr Lyon said.
The declaration follows closely on the heels of French Polynesia's decision to include the Mako shark as part of their eight-year shark fishing moratorium.
"Together with our Polynesian neighbour, Tahiti Nui (French Polynesia), we have created the largest shark sanctuary in the world. We join our Pacific neighbours to protect this animal, which is very vital to the health of our oceans, and our culture," said minister of marine resources Teina Bishop.
"The introduction of these shark sanctuary regulations means that the people of the Cook Islands can feel very proud that our nation is now a global leader in environment protection in terms of our marine resources and shows quite clearly that we are managing our fisheries in a very responsible way."By Cassandra Mason Email Cassandra