The Phoenix Islands are one of the earth’s most remote island chains. They are found in the central Pacific Ocean about halfway between Fiji and Hawaii and consist of 8 islands, mostly all uninhabited. Just a mere 5 degrees south of the Equator, these atolls (coral islands that encircle a lagoon) are one of the most pristine coral archipelago ecosystems in the world.
The island chain is one of 3 that make up the Republic of Kiribati – the world’s largest atoll country which itself has a total of 33 low-lying islands. In March of 2006, they declared the Phoenix Islands a protected area (PIPA), and later in January 2008, this was expanded to encompass 408,250 square km, which for Kiribati is 12 percent of the country’s total territory. Kiribati is a nation that has been forever tied to the oceans around them and the lives of the people there are very much tied to ocean health through the fish it provides, and from the income generated from the sale of fishing licenses.
The Phoenix Islands Protected Area is now the world's largest marine protected area and this remarkable designation will help to protect one of the world’s last remaining marine wilderness areas and has major significance.
One of the Phoenix Islands, Kanton, has a small population of 50 caretakers who help to manage the island chain and focus on preserving the resiliency and health of the region’s species and their habitats. The management plan focuses on the importance of developing partnerships, infrastructure, and the capacity to achieve tangible outcomes for conservation. This work includes the implementation of responsible fishing management, tourism and scientific permit issuance, and a zoning plan which focuses on the different habitats and their biological value.
The Phoenix Islands are an extremely unique area as they provide an important breeding ground that helps to support fish populations and their biological value is unmatched. A number of species can be found in abundance which are globally threatened, these include; Napoleon wrasse, hawksbill turtles, giant clams, and polkadot cod. In addition to the biodiversity, the PIPA also includes a collection of large submerged volcanoes, also knows as seamounts, which typically rise 4,500 to 6,000 meters from the ocean floor.
Due to the remoteness of the Phoenix Islands and the fact that the area is mostly uninhabited, the islands could almost be an example of how a reef system would exist without the pressures of humans upon them; it is this fact that makes them extremely valuable for study and is one of the reasons for the expedition.