Editor’s note: This article was updated on Aug. 14, 2020, to reflect the expansion of Commune de Fakarava reserve in 2016.
Governments around the globe are recognizing that ocean health is critical to all life on this planet and that safeguarding marine plants, animals, and habitats can provide multiple benefits to the people whose lives and traditions are linked to these waters.
In the most recent example, French Polynesia’s Council of Ministers announced plans in June to seek a UNESCO biosphere reserve designation for the Austral Islands by 2023. The council’s action reflects strong local support for establishing robust marine protections to safeguard biodiversity as well as Indigenous and coastal ways of life. The biosphere reserve would be one of the largest in the world, stretching as much as 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) across South Pacific waters teeming with life.
Because of their isolation and topography, the Austral Islands boast rich biodiversity and a high rate of endemic species—that is, those found nowhere else. The island of Rapa supports 112 species of corals, 250 species of mollusks, and 383 species of coastal fish—10% of which are found nowhere else in the world.
UNESCO-designated biosphere reserves are internationally recognized conservation areas that remain under the jurisdiction of the states where they are located. Reserves should be large in scale and “strive to be sites of excellence to explore and demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development.” UNESCO expects sites to contribute to the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, foster economic and human development that is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable, and support demonstration projects, environmental education and training, research, and monitoring.
To earn a designation, a biosphere reserve must include a strictly protected core area that promotes conservation, a contiguous or surrounding buffer that is used for activities such as ecological research and education, and a transition area that fosters “socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable economic and human activities”—for example, artisanal fishing and sustainable tourism. Applicants are also expected to create plans to manage human activity within the buffer zone and the reserve.
UNESCO has established a world network of biosphere reserves that meet those criteria, protect the main ecosystems on the planet, and serve as models for integrated management of land, water, and biodiversity.
Currently, there are more than 700 biosphere reserves in 124 countries spanning 6.8 million square kilometers (2.6 million square miles). The Austral archipelago biosphere reserve, depending on its approved size, could represent nearly 15% of all terrestrial and coastal ecosystems protected under UNESCO’s biosphere reserve designation.
The tradition of “rahui,” or sustainable use of a natural area, is prominent in Pacific Islands culture, and the Austral biosphere reserve would be French Polynesia’s second. In 1977, UNESCO designated the Commune de Fakarava reserve in the Tuamotu Archipelago, a site that encompasses seven diverse coral islands. In 2016, the reserve was extended to include 19,867 square kilometers (7,670 square miles) of land and sea.
Each coral island includes UNESCO’s core, buffer, and transition zones, allowing for the protection of the many species endemic to the archipelago, such as the Tuamotu kingfisher, while preserving the local economy. Buffer zones on the archipelago’s most populous atoll, Fakarava, support sustainable development through diving and ecotourism while the transition zone sustains economic activities including fishing, pearl farming, and copra production.
The proposed Austral archipelago UNESCO site is unique for its incredible size and isolation, but other countries also have created large-scale reserves, such as Taka Bonerate-Kepulauan Selayar in Indonesia. The 44,000-square-kilometer (17,000-square-mile) reserve was designated in 2015 and encompasses small islands, reefs, and atolls. Like the Austral archipelago, it’s a hot spot for biodiversity, supporting over 900 species including turtles, dolphins, and whales. It is also home to mangrove forests, which provide a sanctuary for spawning fish. Despite the protections, researchers have found evidence that some permitted fishing is harming Taka Bonerate-Kepulauan Selayar’s coral reefs.
Some biosphere reserves, such as the one protecting Baa Atoll in the Maldives, are designed to highly protect the ecosystem. Although modest in size—1,400 square kilometers (539 square miles)—this site supports one of the largest groups of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and acts as a highway for planktonic larvae traveling between the western and eastern Indian Ocean. The reserve has nine highly monitored core areas where extraction of any kind is prohibited. Within its buffer zone, only sustainable activities and “non-damaging, non-extractive” uses are allowed.
The specifics of the French Polynesia biosphere reserve plan will be developed with input from Austral residents and will need approval from the French Polynesian government before submission to UNESCO. By harnessing the tradition of rahui, French Polynesia can create a management plan that promotes conservation and biodiversity while encouraging sustainable economic development for the residents of the archipelago.
Jérôme Petit is a senior manager and Donatien Tanret is an officer with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project in French Polynesia.