VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers


World’s Largest Shark Sanctuary Protects Cook Islanders’ ‘Guardians’

The Cook Islands established the world’s largest continuous shark sanctuary last month, enforcing heavy fines on violators who are found with any part of a shark on board their vessel in the 1.997 million sq. km (771,000 sq. miles) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The sanctuary protects all sharks from targeted fishing and aims to prevent possession, sale, and trade of shark products. The animals are often killed to satisfy the high demand of shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy that sells upwards of $100 a bowl. Sharks targeted for this purpose are often thrown back into the ocean after their fins have been cut off, making it impossible for them to survive.

Jess Cramp, program manager of PICI, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton show their support for a Cook Islands shark sanctuary
Jess Cramp, program manager of PICI, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton show their support for a Cook Islands shark sanctuary. Photo courtesy of the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative.

As many as one-third of all open ocean shark species face the threat of extinction, and the reduction in their numbers severely affect the ecosystem around them – especially since it often takes years for a shark to mature and since they have very few young.

In June 2012, there were reports that three tons of shark fins were found aboard an Asian fishing vessel in the Cook Islands, which led to a parliamentary debate over the extent of the problem. There is no data on the number of sharks killed in the Cook Islands each year, which makes it difficult to estimate the severity of shark fishing.

The Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI) spent more than 18 months gathering support for a much-needed sanctuary, after which the Cook Islands declared the entire 1.997 million sq. km EEZ, an area the size of Mexico, a sanctuary protecting sharks, rays, and elasmobranchs. Violators of the sanctuary’s regulations will be fined between $100,000 NZD ($84,000 USD) and $250,000 NZD ($210,550 USD).

Jess Cramp, program manager at PICI, said her group’s campaign was difficult at first and struggled to garner support from Cook Island legislators. The group was met with heavy opposition until it began to get the island community involved.

“We were met with strong opposition from the head of fisheries at first. So much that it made us question why he was so defensive about banning shark fishing,” Cramp said. “So what we did then is we went out into the community and we gave community presentations, we sent letters to the community we couldn’t reach – because it was expensive to get to the outer islands – and we began to acquire what we called ‘shark ambassadors.’”

Cramp and PICI Founder Stephen Lyon spent 18 months meeting with fisheries, collecting scientific data, and gathering community support to make their case to the Ministry of Marine Resources. Once the international media picked up on the campaign, PICI received funding from groups including the Pew Environment Group. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Cook Islands in August, Cramp stopped her at the Pacific Leaders Forum and told her about the campaign for a shark sanctuary.

Clinton appeared to be excited about the project, especially since she had just discussed wildlife protection with one of her staffers, Cramp said.

Kids Posters from PICI Pacific Leaders Forum Booth
Posters made by Cook Island children, displayed at the PICI Pacific Leaders' Forum booth. Photo courtesy of the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative.

In the Cook Islands, sharks are revered as ‘guardians’, and emphasizing that part of the island’s culture was immensely effective in prompting others to support the cause.

“This is something that the locals really grasped onto,” Cramp said, proceeding to explain the arguments that incited Cook Islanders to believe in their cause. “‘We’re not eating the sharks, we’re not making any money off of these foreign vessels coming into our waters eating our sharks. They’re important for the ecosystem, they can’t keep up with the fishing pressures and oh by the way, these are important to our culture. So we can make both an environmental and political statement by standing up and protecting these creatures.’”

On Dec. 12, 2012, Minister of Marine Resources Teina Bishop announced the Cabinet’s approval of the shark sanctuary, just days after French Polynesia included the mako shark as part of an 8-year moratorium on shark fishing. Although the Cook Islands have only identified 18 species of sharks in its water, the neighboring Polynesian islands have identified 40 species and the Cooks are thought to have the same number. The critically endangered oceanic whitetip sharks, blue sharks, hammerhead sharks, and whale sharks have all been found aboard fishing vessels and will now be safeguarded.

“The Cooks in particular are quite savvy,” Cramp said. “They don’t just roll over and let things happen.”

With the new regulations in place, Cook Islanders can rest assured that their ‘guardians’ will themselves be protected in the open ocean while sanctuary violators will be heavily prosecuted.

Students from the Mangaia School show their support for a Cook Islands shark sanctuary. Photo by Mitch Thornton.


  1. Esko Pellevä
    February 6, 2014, 6:36 pm

    Aren’t you afraid of them sharks? That looks grotesque from an outsider

  2. Kristen
    San Clemente, CA
    February 11, 2013, 11:39 pm

    Great work, Jess! Love you and can’t wait for you to come home!

  3. Nga
    Cook Islands
    January 15, 2013, 12:31 pm

    The Cooks will need help in policing its 1.9 million sq. km EEZ waters…

  4. shirley
    China hangzhou
    January 15, 2013, 5:43 am

    sharks are the part of the livs on the earth.we have no right to kill them.

  5. dave
    Sussex UK
    January 15, 2013, 5:16 am

    Great News from you Cook islanders. I am a geography teacher and educate all I can on this topic as well. Perhaps we should team up?
    Keep going and push for even higher penalties for the shark finners, but we also need to chnage the view is Asian nations that the fin is a delicacy.

  6. Joseph Elia
    Auckland, NZ
    January 14, 2013, 11:56 pm

    It touches my heart to see that people from other countries are working very hard to protect my home’s wildlife. Well done, Jess Cramp and the crew. And meitaki maata.

  7. Lee Coulter
    San Diego, CA
    January 14, 2013, 4:12 pm

    Congrats and thank you, Jess and all involved!

  8. Gary Rehfeldt
    Kingston, NY
    January 14, 2013, 3:39 pm

    A job well done by you and your team Jess. Keep up the phenomal work protecting our marine creatures.

  9. Holly Depalma
    Punta Gorda Fl.
    January 14, 2013, 3:18 pm

    So very proud of you and all your sacrifices. For what you have accomplished. AUNT Holly

  10. Holly Depalma
    Punta Gorda Fl.
    January 14, 2013, 3:14 pm

    So very proud of you Jess’ your like a Tiger shark!!!!Go get em!!!! AUNT holly

  11. Sara
    January 14, 2013, 2:31 pm

    SO INSPIRING, Jess, and so very amazed, proud and not at all surprised to see the momentum here from your hard work. Keep it up.

  12. Pamela Doucette
    January 14, 2013, 11:58 am

    It is so incredible to see the determination and focus of Jess Cramp and PICA come to a positive climax! The sharks are part of the ocean chain like the wolves are part of the wilderness chain and having champions for their cause is wonderful! Well done!

  13. Dan
    Austin, TX
    January 14, 2013, 11:25 am

    EEZ is 1.9 million sq. km