In January 2008, the nation of Kiribati established the Phoenix Islands Protected Area
(PIPA), the largest such area in the world. The 410,500-square-kilometer (158,543-square-mile) protected area, located near the equator between Hawaii and Fiji, shelters one of the richest and most pristine marine areas in the world.
Kiribati and the New England Aquarium
developed the new protected area over several years of joint scientific research, with funding and technical assistance from the Global Conservation Fund and Conservation International’s Pacific Islands Program.
Greg Stone, vice president of Global Marine Programs at the New England Aquarium, helped initiate the drive to establish the protected area, and has been involved in the project ever since. Julie Shaw spoke with him about the project.
Q: You first visited Kiribati in 2000, is that right?
A: I first visited the Phoenix Islands with an expeditionary team to survey the islands in 2000. We returned in 2002 to conduct a second survey of the islands. Other members of the team have visited since.
Q: Was it love at first sight?
A: Yes! The condition of the reefs and the quantities of fish and invertebrates mesmerized seasoned scientists. The most remarkable element for me was the large numbers of sharks, indicative of a healthy reef system. Sadly, in most of the world, shark populations have been decimated by the shark fin trade.
Q: Did you immediately recognize the significance of the area?
A: It definitely left us in awe—and gave us the inspiration to work to protect such a remarkable place. The level of biodiversity is significant in itself because it signals the protection afforded to this place by its remote location.
Q: What is it like to dive there?
A: Diving in the Phoenix Islands is a remarkable experience. The amount of colorful animals around you always makes you wish you could stay down longer and the sides of the island sloping to the depths invite curiosity about the numbers of new species that can be found in those depths. The reefs in the Phoenix Islands are generally at a deeper depth so therefore you can’t stay down as long.
Q: I know the rising ocean level is a serious problem for the people, and land-dwelling wildlife, of Kiribati. Is it also a concern for the marine life?
A: Rising sea levels are less of a concern for marine life, but the associated effects that go along with them do pose great dangers for marine life. Significant impacts of global warming include the rising temperature of the oceans (which cause the sea level to rise), which can cause coral bleaching and alter ecosystems.
Q: What have been the most important research developments to come out of studies of the Phoenix Islands?
A: The surveys of the Phoenix Islands have yielded 10 new species of fish and formed the basis for identifying baseline biological values/metrics for a pristine coral reef. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area is a critical laboratory for monitoring the recovery of coral reefs from bleaching events in an undisturbed ocean environment.
Q: What kind of resistance has there been from the commercial fishing industry?
A: As expected, there is some resistance to this project from the commercial fishing industry but the government of Kiribati remains strongly committed to protecting this area and is not deterred by resistance from the fishing industry.
Q: What do you think is the long-term outlook for the marine protected area (MPA)?
A: There are a lot of factors going into the long-term outlook for the PIPA. Climate change has the potential to impact the reefs in the MPA, but its remoteness and protection will mitigate these effects. As the endowment for the PIPA grows, a sequentially larger area of the MPA will become off-limits to fishing. One of the amazing things we envision for the future of the PIPA is that it will become a large-scale laboratory for the study of marine life on coral atolls, reefs and the study of the ecology of seamounts and pelagic species. Kiribati is hoping for the development of appropriate ecotourism in the area. In the future, we envision the PIPA as an area brimming with wildlife that scientists can study closely.
Q: Do you have a sense of how much support there is for maintaining PIPA over the long haul?
A: There is strong international support for the PIPA and we expect that support to continue over time and to increase with the sound management of endowment funds and the continuing commitment of the PIPA partners.
Q: What do you see as the key benefits of the PIPA to the people of the area?
A: The PIPA puts a spotlight on an often understudied area of the world and the unique culture of the people of Kiribati. The government of Kiribati has taken a visionary step in protecting the biological treasures of the Phoenix Islands, a rare action in this era of overexploitation. This will ensure that future generations can continue experiencing the diversity of plant and animal life as well as utilize the resources through sustainable means.