National Geographic News
A photo of a Whitetip Reef Shark swimming over coral in the Phoenix Islands.

A whitetip reef shark swims over coral in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published June 16, 2014

A tiny island nation that controls a vast area of the Pacific Ocean has announced it will ban all commercial fishing in a massive marine park that is the size of California.

Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati—a chain of islands about halfway between Hawaii and Fiji—announced Monday that commercial fishing will end in the country's Phoenix Islands Protected Area on January 1, 2015.

"We will also close the area around the southern Line Islands to commercial fishing to allow the area to recover," said Tong, who spoke at the Our Ocean conference hosted by the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. The southern Line Islands also will be closed to fishing by the beginning of next year.

The Phoenix Islands and the southern Line Islands represent some of the most pristine coral reef archipelagos in the Pacific, says National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, who led the first underwater expedition to the five uninhabited southern Line Islands in 2009 as part of National Geographic's Pristine Seas project.

Sala's team of scientists found healthy coral reefs, abundant predator populations, and pristine lagoons carpeted with giant clams and shark nurseries.

"Diving in the southern Line Islands is like getting in a time machine and traveling back to the reefs of the past, when sharks—and not humans—were the top predators," says Sala.

Marine scientist Amanda Keledjian of Oceana, an international nonprofit focused on ocean conservation, calls Kiribati's announcement "very significant." Decreasing the impact of fishing will "preserve biodiversity, large predators, and reefs," says Keledjian.

History of a Marine Park?

In 2006, Kiribati declared the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. The park was expanded in 2008, becoming the largest marine protected area in the world at that time.

About as large as California, the 164,200-square-mile (425,300-square-kilometer) park contains pristine reefs and eight coral atolls teeming with fish and birds. The region is uninhabited, save for about 50 people living on one of the atolls.

However, since the declaration, Kiribati has been criticized by some scientists and environmentalists for failing to protect the area from commercial fishing. In announcing the park Tong had said publicly that it would be "off limits to fishing and other extractive uses."

In practice, however, the nation banned commercial fishing only in the 3 percent of the reserve around the islands. The rest of the zone remained open to industrial tuna fishers, who have steadily increased their activities.

Tong's latest announcement is an "amazing action that shows what is possible with leadership," said Catherine Novelli, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, at the Our Ocean conference.

Tong said that the reserve "is an investment in the future and our contribution to humanity in the preservation of marine life."

Still, he cautioned that declarations of marine protected areas "have no meanings unless they are enforced." He said technology will be needed to help monitor the vast area, such as aircraft and satellite-based remote sensing.

Tong, whose country has just 100,000 people, called on other nations to help. "Let us pool our resources to protect this gift, our mother ocean," he said. "Inaction is no longer an option."

The Gem of the Southern Line Islands

Tong's government has specifically declared that the area 12 nautical miles off the southern Line Islands will be protected.

Sala calls it a "great first step" and says he hopes the protection zone may eventually be expanded. It has the potential to be self-sustaining financially with ecotourism, he adds.

(Look for National Geographic magazine's story on the southern Line Islands in the September issue. Also see National Geographic Channel's documentary on the area called Journey to Shark Eden.)

"If you think of the ocean as a bank account in which everybody withdraws but nobody makes a deposit, then protected marine reserves are like savings accounts that produce interest," Sala told the conference.

He explained that after fishing was stopped in a marine reserve along Spain's Mediterranean coast, large fish quickly returned. The fish increased so much in population that they spread outside of the reserve. That revived the fishery and created jobs, in addition to those supported by tourism.

Global Next Steps?

At the Our Ocean conference, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked the heads of state, delegates, nonprofit leaders, scientists, and industry representatives from 80 countries to "develop a plan that protects more marine habitats." Less than 2 percent of the ocean is currently protected, he noted. (Related: "With Millions of Tons of Plastic in Oceans, More Scientists Studying Impact.")

And yet the ocean supports the livelihoods of up to 12 percent of the world's population, Kerry said, adding that about half the world's population depends on seafood for a significant portion of its protein. (Related: "John Kerry Urges Support for Ross Sea Antarctic Ocean Reserve.")

"The ocean is essential for maintaining the environment in which we all live," Kerry said, explaining that it recycles carbon, water, air, and nutrients. It is also home to millions of species.

"The importance of the ocean for life itself cannot be overstated," he said.

He added that President Obama may soon announce additional protected areas in U.S. waters. He asked the other participants in the conference to "walk away with a plan" to protect more of the ocean.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

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Forest Redding
Forest Redding

Question?  After all these years, why has the United States of America never ratified and implemented the Law of the Sea Treaties stemming from UNCLOS, regional, and other maritime negotiations?  We are reaping the great benefits of many sections of UNCLOS III without fully implementing many of its central components and provisions. 

Emily Blackner
Emily Blackner

This makes me so happy! But only 2% of the world's oceans is protected?? That's insanely low.

Richard Tate
Richard Tate

The only problem will be with other nations honoring the closer, that has been the

trouble in the past, their problem will be in policing the area.

Drew Z
Drew Z

Policing a area like is actually very simple; high altitude solar blimps. If a trawler enters the zone, the blimp will detect it's thermal signature against the background water temp and can give a automated radio warning, then connect a operator with its camera to verify if its in fact illegally fishing, or just a-drift. If its poaching, a drone is dispatched to take it out. 

Zero tolerance. you poach; you die. plus the boats wreck will literally add to the reef within a few years.   zero tolerance mixed with big brother type technology will be a ultimate deterrence for other that might think to continue raping this planet of its resources. 

This might seem a bit of a harsh approach, but the oceans are in serious trouble  unless we start making some serious changes. Its easy to ignore the problems since most people never interact directly with them, but they are really messed up now, and really need our help. We have plenty of money and more then enough technology to save them and still feed the populations. 

Fanny Douvere
Fanny Douvere

Phoenix Islands Protected Area is the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage site. Unsustainable fisheries is not compatible with World Heritage status, so lets join forces and help those nations who still struggle to cope. World Heritage marine sites cover 20% of all MPAs by surface area -- protecting them effectively will make a transformational change for a substantial part of our global MPA coverage

Read more at:

Tanmay Sharma
Tanmay Sharma

Its a good step taken by the government. Hope other nations will follow too.

Mark Thorpe
Mark Thorpe

Great news but the biggest question is how do they police it? Many other nations have done the same but due to lack of infrastructure and funds in their operating budget these same swathes of Ocean are but reserves in name only.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

This is exactly what we need more of, Leaders that are not afraid of doing the RIGHT thing even when pressured by other sources. The world needs more of this action. BRAVO, BRAVO !!!

Now maybe the children living in that area of the world wil actually be able to see these wonderful places instead of old photos.

James Simik
James Simik

This is the right direction, hopefully other will follow there leed 

R. McDonald
R. McDonald

I applaud the people of this island. 


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