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Giant Marine Reserve Created in South Pacific

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 29, 2006
 
The Republic of Kiribati in the South Pacific has designated an enormous
swath of Pacific atolls, coral reefs, and deep ocean to become one of
the world's largest marine reserves.

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area safeguards some of the planet's most pristine coral reef ecosystems. The new marine park is the world's third largest, topped only by Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

(Read a National Geographic magazine feature on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.)

The protected region spans some 73,800 square miles (184,700 square kilometers)—a stretch of ocean twice the size of Portugal—and includes eight virtually uninhabited coral atolls.

The reserve is home to a panoply of marine life, including over 120 coral species and more than 500 types of fish—some found nowhere else.

Seabirds and turtles also frequent the region, which lies along key migration routes.

The park includes deep-ocean habitat found in no other marine reserve—protection extends even to seamounts on the ocean floor.

"It's a remarkable atoll marine wilderness area, the most magnificent I have ever seen," said Greg Stone, vice president of global marine programs at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

The New England Aquarium and the nonprofit Conservation International joined Kiribati authorities in establishing the reserve.

Kiribati President Anote Tong announced the initiative at the Eighth UN Conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity in Curitiba, Brazil.

"If the coral and reefs are protected, then the fish will grow and bring us benefit," the president said.

"In this way all species of fish can be protected so none become depleted or extinct."

Joseph Uravitch, director of NOAA's National Marine Protected Areas Center, was excited to hear about the move and hopes it signals a growing international trend.

"I was at the International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Australia last year and I was impressed by the number of countries around the world that are looking at establishing reserves as a means of long-term conservation for their resources," he said.

Fund to Replace Fishery

Kiribati consists of 33 islands and only 313 square miles (811 square kilometers) of land. But the country is spread out over nearly two million square miles (five million square kilometers) of Pacific Ocean between Fiji and Hawaii (see map).

The new park will require the closure of a commercial fishery that is one of the poor nation's economic mainstays. The few local residents will be allowed to continue subsistence fishing in park waters.

Commercial fishing rights in the now-protected region had been licensed to foreign fleets, whose fees provided an economic boost.

Kiribati's international partners have established a fund to help replace that lost revenue.

"Kiribati is a developing country, and that income has been important to them," said Tony LaCasse, New England Aquarium spokesperson.

"There was a desire to be able to create an income stream for the government that would replace [fishing] revenue. So with Conservation International we've begun the process to create an endowment fund."

LaCasse notes that the plan is similar to others enacted by Conservation International in Central American rainforests.

But the Phoenix Islands Protected Area will be conservation on a rare scale.

"This is a major milestone for marine conservation efforts in the Pacific and for island biodiversity," said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International.

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