The Kiribati government became a global leader in marine conservation in March of 2006, when it declared the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, and later in January 2008, when the protected area was expanded to encompass 408,250 square kilometers and legally established under law. At that time it the world’s largest marine protected area—an ocean wilderness of coral reefs and rich fish populations threatened by over-fishing and climate change. In 2010, UNESCO named it a natural World Heritage site, noting its "pristine nature and importance as a migration route and reservoir."
With eight atolls and two submerged reef systems located between Hawaii and Fiji in the Central Pacific, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area protects abundant marine and bird life and was the first protected area in the region with open ocean and deep-sea habitat, including underwater mountains. The area provides critical habitat for several species that are considered threatened or endangered, including the hawksbill turtle, Napoleon wrasse, and the endemic Phoenix petrel.
Kiribati and the New England Aquarium developed the new protected area over several years of joint scientific research and discussions, with funding and technical assistance from GCF and CI’s Pacific Islands Program. The design allows for subsistence fishing by communities and sustainable development in designated zones.
A key feature of the Phoenix Islands project is the establishment of a ‘conservation contract’ between the government of Kiribati and its partners. Kiribati protects the area – limiting access to fisheries – and in return, will be compensated from foregone fishing license revenues. To ensure that this important commitment lasts in perpetuity, GCF, the Aquarium and the Government of Kiribati have worked to establish the Phoenix Islands Protected Area Trust, a local institution designed to provide an endowment to cover the recurring management costs of the protected area and compensate the government for lost commercial fishing revenue. In 2011 the Board of Directors hired a Kiribati citizen as Executive Director of the Trust.
The creation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Kiribati has also led to development of another of Conservation International’s signature projects: the Pacific Oceanscape. The Pacific Oceanscape, with the Phoenix Islands MPA as its cornerstone, is a highly innovative multilateral framework designed to secure the long-term sustainable and cooperative management of 40 million square kilometers of ocean and island ecosystems. Kiribati President Anote Tong envisioned this investment in protected areas at scale, inclusive of island, coastal, open ocean, and deep sea habitats. In September 2010, the Pacific Oceanscape Framework was endorsed by the heads of state of 15 Pacific Island nations and seven territories. Marine and terrestrial protected areas remain the single most common-sense tool and biological insurance policy for Pacific Islands people to build resilience and capacity to environmental and climate change.