A small island nation has big plans for ocean conservation commitments

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The South Pacific island of Niue, which lies between Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, is unique. It is one of the smallest countries in the world and sits atop one of Earth’s largest raised coral atolls. Relatively untouched by mass tourism, its waters are home to an array of marine life, including humpback whales, spinner dolphins, gray reef sharks, wrasses, and the endemic Katuali sea snake. About 2,000 people live on the island and work mostly in fishing, agriculture, and tourism.

With a population deeply connected to the ocean, Niue has already taken steps to conserve its ocean environment. In 2022, almost half of the pristine waters surrounding the nation, which is self-governed in free association with New Zealand, were declared as protected. Those who contravene marine park laws can be fined, have their vessel removed, or even face prosecution.

However, in the face of climate change and pressure on resources, Niue wants to do more to ensure this protected area remains viable—for both people and nature. To this end, Tofia Niue and Conservation International, working through the Blue Nature Alliance partnership, have created a two-decade conservation model that puts a monetary value on the ecosystem services provided by each square kilometer of the marine park.

The Blue Nature Alliance is a global partnership of local ocean conservation stakeholders and champions, with Conservation International as one of its founders. McKinsey supports the Blue Nature Alliance in a multiyear, pro bono partnership. Coral Pasisi and Chris Stone chatted to McKinsey’s Duko Hopman about how this approach can encourage custodianship, enhance inclusivity, and ensure sustainable tourism over the next 20 years so people can continue to live in harmony with, and benefit from, a thriving ocean.

An edited version of their conversation follows.

McKinsey: You’re both helping to steer this exciting new model for ocean conservation. Tell us a bit about who you are and what your role is.

Coral Pasisi: I’m the president of a local nonprofit organization in Niue called Tofia Niue. Our objective is to work with the government and local stakeholders to develop a sustainable blue economy that reinforces long-term ocean protection.

Chris Stone: I work for Conservation International, an international non-governmental organization working at the nexus of people and nature—really working to protect and conserve the nature that people need to thrive.

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McKinsey: Niue is a small nation with big marine conservation goals. What are your visions for the island, and what does Niue need to achieve this?

Coral Pasisi: We’re ocean people in the Pacific. And, as a small country that’s still very young in a Western system of democracy, we have traditional systems and Western systems of governance. These work together to try to effectively manage the resources we have and still pass on the knowledge to the next generation to make sure they are able to do the same. Essentially, make a sustainable living, but reinvest in the state of their environment.

Chris Stone: One of our institutional goals at Conservation International—where I lead the team that works on ocean conservation finance—is to conserve oceans at scale. That’s the origin of our partnership with Niue. In almost all contexts where we’re supporting big ocean ambitions, there is a need for sustainable financing and for additional resource mobilization.

McKinsey: What was the starting point for the innovative model that has been created?

Coral Pasisi: The Moana Mahu marine-protected area accounts for 40 percent of the island’s waters. So, we sat down and essentially calculated: “What’s the cost to the government and the people of Niue to manage that effectively for a period of 20 years?” We also calculated: “How do we make sure that businesses comply with the sustainable tourism strategy? And how do we ensure that our kids, our next generation, and all the Indigenous people of Niue are able to be a part of this journey?”

McKinsey: How did you break down those big questions into an implementation plan, with an eye on the future?

Coral Pasisi: All those costs across the whole Moana Mahu area were calculated for a period of 20 years, and then sliced into square kilometers. Just because there isn’t a market right now to monetize some of these ecosystem services doesn’t mean it’s not valuable and that we shouldn’t appreciate the value. And we then create an opportunity for people to really understand what that value is—the full dimensions of that value—and create an instrument they are willing to purchase. We’re calling the instrument an “ocean conservation commitment.”


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McKinsey: So the “ocean conservation commitments” in this instance would be certificates for specific square kilometers of ocean that are designated as protected areas and where you are working to conserve biodiversity. These are priced to reflect the cost of 20 years of keeping this habitat safe, as well as the value of the ecosystem services it provides. The buyers may be people from the island, companies from there or elsewhere, other governments supporting Niue in this effort, and anyone else who values this ambition. What could this approach mean for other parts of the world?

Chris Stone: We see great potential in the model that Niue is putting forward. We refer to it as what we think is a prototype for potentially a bigger movement around unitizing and monetizing biodiversity conservation efforts globally. It's wonderful that countries have these ambitions. Our task is to help them mobilize at least the financial resources that are going to be required for them to really achieve their visions in the space of large-scale ocean conservation.

McKinsey: This inclusive conservation plan has involved many stakeholders, from policymakers and government officials to local communities and projects. How have partnerships played a role?

Coral Pasisi: The support from the Blue Nature Alliance to work in partnership with us to create the model has been completely necessary. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without their expertise.

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