There's Nothing Fishy Here: CI's Chief Ocean Scientist on Progress in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area


A Response from CI's Chief Ocean Scientist on Kiribati's Phoenix Islands Protected Area

A shorter version of the following commentary from Dr. Gregory Stone was originally published in the winter issue of Earth Island Journal​.  It is a response to a previous story published by the journal in August.
"Thirteen years ago, I first traveled with a scientific expedition team to Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands, an extremely remote and unexplored oceanic coral archipelago in the Central Pacific that was, until then, little known and poorly understood. Our mission was to explore the remote and pristine reef systems around the islands and to assess their unique biodiversity and conservation potential. It was a trip that changed my life.

"During my very first dive, I was greeted by flourishing fields of red, green, orange, pink and auburn corals and Matisse-like schools of fish so dense they dimmed the sunlight above. Everywhere I looked, I saw giant clams, sea anemones, nudibranchs, and populations of large fish – from blacktip reef sharks to parrotfish to bohar snappers. It was, for a marine biologist and lifelong student of the ocean, an uplifting and eye-opening view of ocean health at its most ideal – reminiscent of what I imagine marine ecosystems were like thousands of years ago.

"The Phoenix Islands had remained undisturbed for so long, largely avoiding overfishing, pollution, and other harmful impacts of modern civilization, that as soon as I saw the raw beauty of marine life surrounding them, I knew I had to become involved in the process of studying and protecting them. Today, that process stands as one of the most rewarding and challenging goals I have yet undertaken in my three decades of conservation work.

"So it was with great disappointment that I read the harsh August 2013 story in Earth Island Journal – “Something’s Fishy,” about the state of marine protections in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). The article presented a harmful and one-sided perspective that is neither fully accurate nor justified and needs urgent correction.

"Let me respond directly and assure your readers that there is nothing “fishy” about the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) except, perhaps, the fish themselves. It is a phased approach to the design and establishment of a large-scale, multiple-use marine protected area that is relevant to Kiribati’s socioeconomic and cultural circumstances. We need as many of those as possible given the declining state of the world’s oceans and its implications for human wellbeing. Save for one erroneous statement on Conservation International’s (CI) website, which was immediately and transparently corrected, we have never communicated PIPA as anything but what it is: a multiple-use marine protected area. There was and has never been any intent to mislead or misinform the public about PIPA’s protection status.

"One specific accusation focused on alleged delays by Conservation International in funding an endowment to compensate Kiribati for any financial losses its economy may suffer when they limit access to their fisheries to scale up marine protections. I am happy to report that US$5 million was invested into the PIPA Trust Fund, as planned, through matching gifts we raised or secured from CI’s Global Conservation Fund and the Government of Kiribati, which unanimously authorized its approval for the investment by vote of Parliament in mid-August. Those details were unfortunately absent from the story. We are now working with Kiribati to design additional closures in the rest of PIPA on plan and on schedule, information also information omitted by the writer.

"Regretfully, the story failed to point out that, while the three percent area that is currently designated as “no-take” for commercial fisheries may seem small in percentage, it is a significant area by global standards – roughly the size of the state of Maryland, some 12,000 square kilometers. It was intentionally designed to protect all of the high value reef and island sites first and serve as an important building block for the PIPA’s future amplification strategy.

"I believe there was some confusion over nomenclature that is all too common in the relatively young field of marine protection: when we say "national park, national forest, or nature reserve," on land people generally know what we mean. However, the lexicon of ocean conservation is not as well understood yet. Terms like "no-take," "reserve," "park" and “marine protected area” or “MPA” are simply not interchangeable. 

"The Phoenix Islands Protected Area was announced as a Marine Protected Area, which is defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, (IUCN), as a “clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” PIPA clearly meets this definition. In addition, the United Nations designated PIPA the largest and deepest UNESCO world heritage site after a rigorous multi-year review, further emphasizing the global importance of this region of the earth.

"PIPA remains the most ambitious conservation project of any least developed country and small island developing state of which I am aware, and one that I, my colleagues at Conservation International, and all the PIPA partners remain fully committed. The continued expansion of protection within PIPA will create a fish regeneration zone in the middle of the last robust tuna stocks in the world. With careful, scientific management and methodical increase in protections, PIPA can strengthen food, climate and economic security for generations to come, and support Kiribati’s citizens, our planet and people everywhere.

"Creating MPAs in areas that are the focus of intense fishing pressures, like in the Central Pacific, is a challenge, yet it is of the utmost importance to the future food of the world and the economic future of Small Island Developing States. With most of the world’s fisheries at or nearing collapse, it is my sincerest hope that, rather than tearing down a potential solution before we have the chance to build it up, we in the conservation, science, and development communities offer our encouragement and support for the commitment being shown by the partners of PIPA, the Republic of Kiribati, and especially the visionary president of Kiribati, Anote Tong. Their success can be to our global gain, if we just them give time and support."

Chief Scientist for Oceans and Executive Vice President
Conservation International