Niue's Fight to Sustain Itself

Niue's Fight to Sustain Itself

The small island of Niue is betting on low-impact tourism to sustain its marine resources and people.


8 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Conservation, Earth Science, Oceanography, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography


Niue Coastline

Unlike many other South Pacific islands, Niue doesn't have low-lying, sandy beaches. The island rests on a raised coral reef.

Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library
Unlike many other South Pacific islands, Niue doesn't have low-lying, sandy beaches. The island rests on a raised coral reef.

Niue is threatened with losing its marine life from overfishing and the effects of climate change. Ocean fauna are an invaluable resource for the people of the South Pacific island. Lacking an abundance of other natural resources, Niue depends on the ocean to sustain its people and their way of life.

The island's residents are taking steps to ensure their home remains intact for future generations. The people's approach includes utilizing their ancestral heritage of only taking what is needed to sustain life to ensure their continued prosperity. To do so, the country took the huge step of setting aside a huge amount of its sovereign waters to monitor and spatially manage. “I look at this from a viewpoint that it is an intergenerational investment on our part," Niue Premier Sir Toke Talagi said in a 2017 interview about the protected areas. “I believe that our ancestors used to invest like that but for much shorter periods of time.”

The “Rock of Polynesia” sits atop a large, raised coral atoll with its highest plateau about 60 meters (197 feet) above sea level. So, unlike many islands, Niue is not in danger of having its land washed away by sea-level rise. But sea-level rise does threaten to spoil the island’s supply of freshwater. The island lacks surface water, depending on groundwater taken from underground catches and collected water.

Coral reefs play an essential role for the island, providing inhabitants with a source of food and cash through fishing and tourism. Coral reefs form diverse ecosystems within the ocean; making up less than one percent of the ocean floor, they support an estimated 25 percent of known marine species. Coral reefs support a huge diversity of marine life, including many species at the base of the ocean’s food web, like snails and marine worms. Organisms use reefs for shelter, food, and breeding.

At 45 square kilometers (17.4 square miles), coral reefs account for much of Niue’s landmass, which is 260 square kilometers (100 square miles) in total. Niue’s coastline stretches 64 kilometers (40 miles). The tiny island has a huge volume of water over which it has sole legal authority as a nation (i.e., sovereignty), amounting to 127,000 square kilometers (49,000 square miles).

Healthy coral reefs provide some of Earth’s most diverse ecosystems. But overfishing, pollution from land runoff, and inadequate waste management have damaged Niue’s coral reefs. More generally, irresponsible fishing has damaged coral through illegal or unregulated fishing, as well as seafloor trawling, poison, and explosives.

Coral reefs don’t just protect marine life within their ecosystems; these marine environments also protect nearby human communities. A 2018 study found these communities experience about half the yearly expected damage (by monetary cost) from flooding compared to similar areas without coral reefs. Similarly, coastal regions protected by coral reefs receive about a third of the annually expected damage. “The countries with the most to gain from reef management are Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Mexico, and Cuba; annual expected flood savings exceed $400 [million] for each of these nations,” the Nature Communications paper found.

Natural disasters, like cyclones, can also damage coral reefs. Sometimes natural and human-made problems combine, in the form of climate change, to hurt coral reefs. Niue was struck by a Category 5 cyclone blowing winds up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour on January 5, 2004. Cyclone Heta devastated the land of the tiny nation and its coral reefs, especially on the west coast.

And it is Niue’s west coast that houses most of the island’s reef fisheries and places for marine tourism. Off the east coast, Beveridge Reef has the highest density of gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) found anywhere. Small islands, like Niue, typically rely on a few economic activities. The government is pushing tourism to become a greater part of the country’s economy.

Beyond potential economic benefits, islands often have innate value. Islands generally have high species richness, averaging about 9.1 times the number of native, or endemic, plant species and 8.5 times the number of native vertebrate species compared to continental land of the same size. Species richness is defined as the number of different species in a given area. This term is not about the number of individuals of a species present. It doesn’t matter if an area has three or 300 individuals of a species.

Islands are also rich in human cultural diversity. The Niuean people have a language and culture all their own, but the island's population has been shrinking. It is estimated to range from 1,600 to 2,000 people, which dropped from more than 5,000 in the 1960s due to emigration. Many of these emigrants—estimated at more than 30,000—moved to New Zealand, where they are citizens.

The people of Niue have taken important, serious steps to maintain its waters, thereby sustaining its people, by creating a marine protected area and special management areas. The marine protected area, or Niue Moana Mahu, amounts to 40 percent of the nation’s sovereign waters. No commercial or industrial fishing is allowed there.

Within the marine protected area is a special management area, which includes Beveridge Reef. In the special management area, the government may allow some activities, like private fishing, boating, and diving. Even these sustainable, less harmful activities may need a permit and are subject to possible monitoring.

Niue's focus has been on striking a balance between economic prosperity and environmental sustainability by promoting low-impact tourism over commercial and industrial fishing. During a typical year, 9,000 tourists visit the island. Popular tourist activities are fishing, diving, and whale watching. Tourists must respect traditions and rights given to them and Niueans. Specific zones are reserved exclusively for fishers native to a given Niuean settlement. Local fishers use the traditional Nieuan canoe, the vaka, to bring back food for their families and communities.

Fishing from tourism provides much more money to Niue per kilogram of fish caught than commercial fishing does. While commercial and tourist fishers both pay licensing fees, tourists also pay for the boat, the hotel, travel, restaurants, and shops they’re using while staying in Niue.

This aggressively progressive agenda was established by the Niuean government and Tofia Niue after receiving guidance from the funding organization Oceans 5 in February 2015. Soon after National Geographic’s Pristine Seas and other environmental initiatives also provided guidance and grant money to start the effort. Started in 2015, the nonprofit organization Tofia Niue works to “sustainably and holistically manage and develop Niue’s ocean resources for current and future generations,” according to its website. Just six months later, Tofia Niue, in collaboration with the Niue government, created the Niue Ocean Wide (NOW) Project.

And it was the NOW Project that spearheaded the creation of the marine protected area, which was formalized into law on April 21, 2020 by the Niuean government. The law was enacted to enable local fish populations to replenish themselves and to maintain the coral reefs. The ocean provides Niue’s people with food security and their cultural heritage, which the NOW Project is charged with sustaining for coming generations.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Manager
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 2, 2024

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