Worldwide, the ocean is changing rapidly.
The forces of climate change, acidification and overfishing are putting enormous pressure on our oceans — and on the human populations who depend on their resources. The waters are warming, sea levels are rising, and once-productive fisheries are collapsing. The challenge of tackling these changes — which, if left unchecked, will affect us all — is as urgent as it is enormous.
But every Goliath has its David.
For the threats to our oceans, that David just might be Kiribati — a tiny island nation roughly half the size of London — where President Anote Tong conceived the Pacific Oceanscape, an unprecedented effort among Pacific Island nations to collaboratively and sustainably manage nearly 40 million square kilometers of vital ocean. Designed with support from Conservation International (CI), the Pacific Oceanscape concept was introduced to the Pacific Islands Forum by Kiribati in 2009; the Framework for the cooperative stewardship of their combined ocean territories was presented a year later, receiving unanimous endorsement by the heads of state and government of 15 participating nations.
And while many of the collaborators may be tiny island nations with modest terrestrial areas, their expansive exclusive economic zones (EEZ) effectively make them massive ocean states. (The ratio of EEZ to land for Kiribati, for example, is a staggering 4,890:1) Together, the nations of the Pacific Oceanscape control some 10 percent of the world's ocean surface — an area four times the size of the United States. These are economically important waters, hosting the world's largest remaining stocks of tuna and providing nearly half of the world's tuna catch. They are ecologically sensitive waters as well, putting the residents of nations like Kiribati, where the effects of rising sea levels already are being felt, on the front lines of climate change.
The vision for the Pacific Oceanscape, now the world's largest integrated conservation and ocean management initiative by area, stems from the establishment declaration of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) in 2006. CI worked closely with President Tong and the New England Aquarium on PIPA — which encompasses some of the most pristine and coral-rich waters on the planet — providing both technical assistance and funding for its creation. Upon its full legal establishment and expansion in 2008, it became the world's largest marine protected area at the time — an ocean territory the size of California and some 6,000 meters in depth — before ultimately being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site two years later.
PIPA also set the standard for the establishment of formally protected areas within the scope of the Pacific Oceanscape. In 2011, the Cook Islands followed Kiribati's lead with a commitment to create the Cook Islands Marine Park, which would be the country's enduring contribution to the Pacific Oceanscape. Presently being designed in consultation with CI, the more than 1 million square-kilometer marine park — comprising half of the Cook Islands' total ocean territory — will be the world's largest; it will be formally launched at the Pacific Islands Forum in late August 2012. Coming just two months after Australia's commitment of $25 million in Oceanscape funding, it is yet another sign that the momentum — and political will — behind the Pacific Oceanscape not only remains high, but continues to grow.
In his 34 years as a marine biologist and conservationist, Dr. Greg Stone, CI's senior vice president and chief scientist for oceans, has never seen a more innovative or ambitious marine initiative.
"The Pacific Oceanscape," he said, "is a watershed moment. Because we've now taken a big chunk of our largest ocean on the Earth and said 'We're going to manage this sustainably. We're going to manage this in a fashion that will increase humanity's well-being in this area.'"
To Pacific Oceanscape Commissioner Tuiloma Neroni Slade, the sweeping vision of the initiative is grounded in pragmatism. "It's a pledge to ourselves to safeguard our home," he said.
But to those of us around the world who watch their efforts unfold, it is increasingly clear that the nations of the Pacific Oceanscape — through their most generous gift to the world — are working hard to safeguard a home for all of us.