The tiny Pacific islands nation of Kiribati declared the world's largest marine protected area Thursday—a California-sized ocean wilderness that includes pristine reefs and eight coral atolls teeming with fish and birds.
PIPA was the world's third largest marine protected area when it was first designated two years ago. The Kiribati government has now dramatically expanded the size of the reserve—more than doubling the area—making it the world's largest.
The reserve conserves one of Earth's last intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems.
Kiribati Environment Minister Tetapo Nakara said the government wanted to conserve the area's "biological diversity."
"The coral reefs and bird populations of the islands are unique, virtually untouched by man—a true wilderness of natural beauty," he said Thursday in announcing the marine reserve.
Nakara said his ministry hopes to fully establish the 164,200-square-mile (425,300-square-kilometer) area as a protected zone by the end of the year, with the goal of attracting more tourists to Kiribati—an impoverished coral atoll nation of about 95,000 people. About 50 people live on one of the protected atolls.
The plan does not come without costs. Some commercial fishing in the area will be restricted, meaning the Kiribati government will forego some revenue from foreign commercial fishing licenses.
Kiribati earned 33 million U.S. dollars in 2001 from fishing licenses—the latest available figure.
The government stands to lose about 3 million U.S. dollars of this revenue with the creation of the reserve, but it is hoping to recoup some of the losses by boosting tourism, which now accounts for 20 percent of the gross domestic product.
It has already applied to have the marine reserve listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kiribati and Boston-based New England Aquarium conducted joint scientific research in the area over several years with funding and technical aid from Conservation International.
"Kiribati has taken an inspirational step in increasing the size of PIPA well beyond the original eight atolls and globally important seabird, fish, and coral reef communities," Greg Stone, New England Aquarium vice president of global marine programs, said in a statement.
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