A coral reef lies near the island of Rapa in the Austral Islands, French Polynesia. (Image credit: Ian Skipworth)

A new proposal could result in the creation of the largest protected natural area on Earth. Inhabitants of the Austral Islands — the southernmost islands in French Polynesia in the South Pacific — have just presented a proposal to the government of French Polynesia calling for a new marine reserve in their waters. The protected area, which is pending final approval from the government, would span 1 million square kilometers, or more than 380,000 square miles, an area the size of Texas and Nevada combined.

In 2013, the French Polynesian government committed to protecting at least 20 percent of its waters by 2020. The proposed reserve around the Austral Islands would fulfill this commitment while also protecting a diverse and ecologically important marine landscape. The area is home to 14 species of sharks, humpback whales and other marine mammals, sea turtles, corals, dozens of other fish species and hundreds of mollusks, many of which are found nowhere else in the world, according to research published last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Ecologically, this is probably one of the most pristine areas on the planet,” said Jérôme Petit, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy campaign in French Polynesia. “These islands are extremely remote; the impact of the population on the resources is very low.”

The only fishing in French Polynesia is local; no foreign fleets conduct any operations there, according to Petit. As such, the fishing pressure in the region is low, with only 6,000 tons of fish produced each year from all the French Polynesian waters, and just two percent of that comes from the Austral Islands.

Legislation already protects sharks and marine mammals from fishing in French Polynesia, but the reserve would extend those protections to other marine animals, as well. The proposal would permit fishing within 20 nautical miles of the Austral Islands — where most local fishing already takes place — but would prohibit it beyond that point. Other forms of extraction, including mining, would also be prohibited within the confines of the reserve.

These regulations would help make sure that deep-sea species, such as tuna and swordfish — which are prime fishing targets in other parts of the world — remain well-preserved around the Austral Islands, where the marine ecosystem remains well intact. The reserve would also help protect the inhabitants of the Austral Islands from the encroachment of large-scale commercial fishing pressure, which could deplete marine resources and threaten the region’s culture and traditional livelihoods.  

“The islanders…know that there is a very strong commercial pressure from all the other countries who want to get in,” Petit said. “They are afraid that one day one of the governments could decide to open the fishing to foreign fleets or to bring bigger boats in this area, and they don’t want that to happen.”

Local inhabitants of the Austral Islands already exercise traditional practices aimed at keeping the marine ecosystem in good shape. In a practice called “rahui,” the islanders temporarily close certain areas to fishing to allow fish stocks to regenerate. Such techniques have helped keep the area in nearly pristine condition — and the new reserve would ensure that it stays that way.

Work on the proposal began back in 2014, when municipal councils in the Austral Islands expressed their desire for a marine reserve. In November of that year, the government of French Polynesia announced its intent to establish a marine protected area around the Australs. The proposal, which was finally submitted Wednesday by the Austral communities, was put together with input from all the local populations on the islands, Petit said.

The proposal is still pending final approval from the government of French Polynesia, and at this point there is no set timeline for when a final decision will be made, Petit said.

The proposal’s release comes on the heels of an announcement last month by the government of Ecuador establishing a new marine sanctuary around the Galapagos islands of Darwin and Wolf. And last year, several new marine reserves were established by the governments of Chile, Palau and New Zealand, while President Obama announced several new sanctuaries in the United States. The previous record for the largest marine reserve created was set last year, when the British government established a reserve around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific spanning  830,000 square kilometers, or about 322,000 square miles.

Despite the recent flurry of activity regarding marine reserves, less than three percent of the oceans are currently protected. The United Nations has set a goal of protecting at least 10 percent of the world’s marine areas by the year 2020, although recent research has called for even loftier commitments.

A review of nearly 150 studies on the concept of marine protections, published last month, concluded that a long-term goal of protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans will likely be necessary to adequately safeguard marine biodiversity and ecosystem services.  We interviewed the paper’s lead author, Callum Roberts of the University of York, when the review was published last month, and he noted that the UN’s 10 percent target was originally intended to be met by the year 2012. When it became clear the target was out of reach, it was moved to 2020 — highlighting the need for more serious international commitments to marine protected areas.

But the recent activity in French Polynesia and elsewhere may be good cause for optimism. And having an established global percentage goal — even if it’s just a starting point — has helped draw attention to the devastating effects of overfishing, pollution, climate change and other human influences on the ocean and the growing need for action.

“I think what’s really encouraged me is how much it’s motivated governments to do things,” Roberts told The Washington Post last month. “There’s a real energy around efforts underway to protect the sea now.”