Conservation groups have hailed a move by Niue to set nearly half of its marine estate aside as a vast new reserve.

The tiny island nation, population 1624, will establish a new marine protected area (MPA) to cover 40 per cent of the island's exclusive economic zone.

The 127,000 sq km MPA includes much of the waters around Niue itself as well as nearby Beveridge Reef, an uninhabited, semi-submerged atoll that has the largest density of grey reef sharks in the world.

Once established, it will be the 28th largest MPA in the world.

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The initiative was part of the Niue Ocean Wide (NOW) project to manage the island's resources through a public-private partnership between the country's government and a local non-profit organisation Tofia Niue.

"We need to invest for our future generations, so they can enjoy the bounties that we enjoyed and know that we cared about them," Niue Premier Sir Toke Talagi said.

"The Government of Niue is happy to support this project and we look forward to working with others who want to help us protect our resources."

NOW director Brendon Pasisi said the MPA would "lock up" a proportion of its fishing resource for conservation and help reduce global over-fishing threatening fish stocks.

"Giving up a proportion of commercial fisheries opportunities is the foundation of this commitment; it will help Niue safeguard the natural asset, build ecological resilience and allow the island to pursue more sustainable economic, social and environmental opportunities including achieving greater local food security and foster more blue tourism.

"After decades of contributing regionally to ocean conservation and management, and striving nationally to achieve sustainable development and management standards within our means, it's no small feat for a tiny, developing island-state to make such a major contribution to ocean conservation."

The announcement drew praise from National Geographic, whose Pristine Seas operation took researchers and conservationists to the island last September, where they mapped the area including Beveridge Reef as one of 17 pristine natural sites in the world and carried out a comprehensive biodiversity assessment of the area.

Environment groups WWF-New Zealand, Forest and Bird and The Pew Charitable Trusts lauded the move.

Niue is a large upraised coral atoll, lying in the centre of a triangle formed by Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. Photo / Supplied
Niue is a large upraised coral atoll, lying in the centre of a triangle formed by Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. Photo / Supplied

"This is a huge step forward for marine conservation in the Pacific," WWF New Zealand chief executive Livia Esterhazy said.

"The ocean around Niue is a known breeding ground for humpback whales - the same whales that pass through New Zealand's Kermadec region each spring."

The groups now wanted to see New Zealand make good on its promise to establish the 620,000 sq km Kermadec Rangitahua Ocean Sanctuary, which would cover an area twice the size of our land mass and 50 times the size of our largest national park.

The plans, unveiled two years ago, have been set back by legal challenges and disagreement between parties.

A Colmar Brunton poll earlier this year showed that 93 per cent of New Zealanders want the sanctuary established.

"We don't know which parties will make up our new government once coalition negotiations are completed, but we do know that New Zealanders all over the country will be watching for the new government to keep the Kermadec promise," Forest and Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said.