The Phoenix Islands are located in the central Pacific Ocean, north of Samoa, in the Polynesia-Micronesia biodiversity hotspot. Recent surveys by the New England Aquarium reveal that the marine environment is remarkably pristine and currently holds good populations of macro-predators such as sharks, tuna, humphead wrasse and groupers. In addition, several threatened seabirds and sea turtles nest on these atolls.
As a relatively untouched, largely uninhabited area, this is essentially a marine wilderness. However, the recent depletion of species such as sharks and tuna around some of the islands serves as an indicator of the vulnerability of the entire island group to growing human resource use, particularly expanding fisheries.
The government of the Republic of Kiribati is keen to explore sustainable alternatives to the current fisheries system. Indeed, as a sign of its commitment, they have already proposed an exclusion zone for commercial tuna purse seine boats for 60 nautical miles around the Phoenix Islands.
Now, a team headed by the New England Aquarium and funded by the Global Conservation Fund at Conservation International, is starting to investigate opportunities for an archipelago-wide conservation and minimal sustainable use zoning plan, financed principally through an endowed "conservation license" that would preempt future export fisheries of coral reef resources, allow local subsistence fishing on the two populated atolls, and allow for a small amount of low-impact tourism.
This innovative "reverse fishing license" - one of the first of its kind, similar to a "conservation concession" on land - would provide the government with a sustainable income source, which could be used to address development needs in neighboring, more populated islands.
* This article originally appeared in the Spring 2004 Hotspots eNewsletter.