Small, Endangered Kiribati Takes Giant Steps to Save the Ocean

Small, Endangered Kiribati Takes Giant Steps to Save the Ocean

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One of President Anote Tong’s most sorrowful duties is to prepare his 110,000 people to abandon their ancestral homeland, the Republic of Kiribati. “Even before the islands are inundated, they will become uninhabitable,” he said, because salt water is increasingly intruding on groundwater. Waves wash across villages now not only during storms, but even with moderate winds.

Yet even as it disappears under water, the Republic of Kiribati, a small oceanic nation that straddles the Equator about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, it has emerged, along with other tiny island nations, as the vanguard of a growing ocean conservation movement.

Other southwestern Pacific island nations face a similar future as Kiribati. Fiji, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea are among those most endangered by the accelerating effects of global warming. Yet they have drawn networks of protection across enormous swatches of the high seas and hundreds of small coastal areas. Their power to do so lies in international law, which provides that every nation has sovereignty over resources within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles off its shores. Some island nations have huge EEZs, and Kiribati’s is the largest of any Pacific nation. Its total land area is only 313 square miles, but its islands are scattered over more than 1.3 million square miles.

In January 2008, President Tong startled the world by announcing the establishment of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Phoenix Islands, where some of the world’s last pristine coral reefs nurture a profusion of species, including tuna, sharks, and other big fish targeted by Korean, Japanese, American, and other commercial fishing fleets. In October 2010, UNESCO inscribed the Phoenix Islands Protected Area as the largest World Heritage Site on Earth.

MPAs are geographically designated areas where fishing and other activities are either banned or limited to safeguard the health of marine ecosystems. These reserves are often controversial, because the places they protect also tend to be productive fishing grounds. Experience and research so far support the view that MPAs can help depleted fisheries to recover, as fish that survive and grow in them “spill over” to adjacent waters. MPAs also offer a kind of insurance against impacts of global warming, because diverse and healthy ecosystems tend to be more resilient than damaged ones.

This year, corals have been losing color and dying across the world as water temperatures have risen to levels recorded only once before, in 1998, when 16 per cent of the world’s shallow-water corals died. Coral is highly sensitive to temperature, as well as to pollution, and therefore, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, it is viewed a possible indicator of impending catastrophe.

But there is good news from Kiribati, marine scientist Greg Stone reported at the California and the World Ocean conference, held in San Francisco in September. “In 2002, we had a sea surface hot spot in the middle of the Phoenix Islands,” he said. “We are now seeing the fastest coral recovery on the planet. It’s an astounding adaptation. If you have overfishing, development, pollution, it can’t recover.”

Stone, who heads the marine conservation programs at Conservation International, played a key role in helping Kiribati to create the Phoenix Islands protected area. In 2000, when he was with the New England Aquarium in Boston, he came to the Phoenix Islands on a research expedition. As he dropped into the water for his first dive, he was astounded. Around him were thousands of fish, small and large. He was in an ocean that seemed unchanged from a thousand years ago. The multicolored corals—known as rain forests of the sea--were thriving. To Stone, this was paradise.

He urged fisheries officials and President Tong to protect this paradise. Tong liked the idea but pointed out that a substantial part of the county’s income was derived from licensing international fishing vessels, and that about 20 per cent of the tuna fishing took place around the Phoenix Islands.

But Kiribati’s president knew there was trouble ahead. With tuna populations devastated in the Atlantic and under stress in the eastern Pacific, more industrial fishing vessels had been coming to Kiribati’s waters for the last remaining healthy stock of tuna in the world. Tong also realized that corals are slow to grow and easily damaged by commercial shipping.

A solution to the Kiribati government’s dilemma was crafted after Conservation International agreed to start an endowment fund that would compensate Kiribati for revenue lost by limiting international fishing. Others contributed and the New England Aquarium helped Kiribati to plan the MPA.

Such a reserve is only effective if its requirement can be enforced. In that, Kiribati has had some help from other Pacific nations. New Zealand has provided overflights, and the U.S. Coast Guard reported a Korean vessel that was fishing illegally, enabling the government to levy a large fine, Tong said.


Kiribati’s bold and visionary action inspired other small island nations to collaborate. In December 2008, eight island nations and territories closed 560,000 square miles to fishing for tuna, swordfish, sharks, and other large migratory species and restricted fishing practices within the combined extent of their EEZs. Nine other nations banned the use of large-scale driftnets on the high seas and required purse seiners to retain their entire catch instead of throwing back small fish to make room for big ones. As of this year, deep-sea fishing vessels are required to carry on-board observers and satellite tracking devices to monitor compliance.

Meanwhile, during the past two decades another kind of marine protected area—local in origin and locally managed—has proliferated in the islands. Some 500 communities in 15 nations have set aside marine areas to restore traditional food supplies. Unlike MPAs, these reserves exist outside government structures and do not depend on financial support or incentives from international organizations. They rely on traditional cultural practices updated with scientific know-how.

A report on these grassroots reserves, Status and Potential of Locally Managed Marine Areas in the South Pacific, published in May 2009 for the Coral Reef Initiative for the Pacific and sponsored by France, found that marine reserves that originate with local people tend to be more effective than those launched by outsiders. It also found that traditional knowledge often coincides with science. In Papua New Guinea, for example, some particularly dangerous or hard-to-reach places are believed to be protected by spirits. These are often places where fish spawn and aggregate—especially important to protect, from a scientific point of view. Marine biologist Hugh Gowan, of Suva, Fiji, was the principal author of this report.

Fiji now has some 200 locally protected areas, linked to a first national network in the islands, according to Bill Aalbersberg, director of the Institute of Applied Science at the University of the South Pacific, in Suva. Many were sparked by the success in a village, Ucunivanua, where a clam that is a staple food source was getting scarce. A clam gathering area was declared tabu for three years, then reopened. The number and size of clams increased, not only there but also nearby.

Elsewhere on the Pacific Rim, only Australia and New Zealand have succeeded in creating sizeable reserves. In the United States, California is in the lead, working to build a network of coastal MPAs, although the process is contentious. Unlike some of the Pacific island villages, U.S. coastal communities do not readily unite around a common interest in ocean life.

Rasa Gustaitis was the long-time editor of California Coast & Ocean magazine, which ceased publication at the end of 2009.