In a pace-setting move to achieve conservation commitments for the years 2010 and 2012, the Republic of Kiribati today announced the creation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), the largest marine protected area in the Pacific Islands and the third largest in the world. Surpassed in size only by Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the PIPA represents 8 percent of all marine protected areas on Earth and helps safeguard more than 71,300 square miles of nearly pristine marine wilderness.
The announcement by Martin Puta Tofinga, Kiribati's minister of environment, lands, and agricultural development, came as governments, civil society delegations, and local and indigenous community leaders convened here to assess progress made toward international environmental goals. They are attending the Eighth Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in Curitiba, Brazil.
In February 2004, 188 participating governments recognized the creation of protected areas as a cornerstone conservation strategy. They negotiated a plan for establishing "comprehensive, effectively managed, and ecologically representative" systems of terrestrial and marine protected areas by 2010 and 2012, respectively. The PIPA is the result of a partnership with the New England Aquarium
(NEAq) and Conservation International (CI), and is a significant success for the Government of Kiribati toward achieving its CBD goals.
A nation of coral atolls, Kiribati comprises three distinct groups of islands (the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands) and straddles the equator about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The Phoenix Islands – an archipelago several hundred miles long – are extremely remote and virtually uninhabited, save for a single administrative population of fewer than 50 people. Though historically protected by their isolation, the islands are increasingly under threat by advanced fishing techniques and the effects of climate change, such as coral bleaching.
The PIPA encompasses eight atolls, each with a 60 nautical mile protected perimeter, and two submerged reef systems. More than 120 species of coral and 520 species of reef fish have been identified in the area. Dolphins have been spotted in coastal waters, and there is evidence of sea turtle nesting on most beaches. Furthermore, healthy seabird populations indicate good conditions for continued nesting and illustrate the importance of the Phoenix Islands in migratory routes across the Central Pacific.
As the CBD signatories agree, successful conservation occurs not only in the creation of protected areas, but also in their effective management and their ability to return tangible benefits to local communities. CI and the NEAq are working with the Government of Kiribati to devise a management plan for the PIPA that includes careful zoning to allow for subsistence harvesting and other sustainable economic opportunities. The plan also calls for capacity building for enforcement of regulations and financing mechanisms.
The Government of Kiribati will be compensated for its investment through a unique endowment system, demonstrating the potential economic return of choosing conservation efforts over extractive industries. CI's Global Conservation Fund will finance the implementation phase of this plan and initiate the endowment.
CI's role in the creation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is part of a new program in the Pacific Islands region and reflects the organization's commitment to protected areas management. It also underscores how ecologically fragile confined island ecosystems are and emphasizes the need to protect them. The small size and isolation of islands predisposes their biodiversity to a range of threats and can magnify their effects.
Threats include habitat loss, hunting, invasive species, global climate change, and sea level rise. The need for protected area management and the importance of island biodiversity are two key messages CI scientists and executives are promoting in Curitiba this week at the COP8, particularly as they relate to reducing the rate of biodiversity loss worldwide.
"This is a major milestone for marine conservation efforts in the Pacific and for island biodiversity," said CI President Russell A. Mittermeier. "The Republic of Kiribati has shown unprecedented vision for long-term conservation of its precious marine biodiversity. We are proud to be associated with this effort."