It's probably a safe guess you've never been to the Phoenix Islands, a group of atolls and submerged coral reefs in the central Pacific. But the islands' isolation has its perks: Home to some 120 species of coral and 500 species of fish, the thriving area stands in stark contrast to the all too familiar news of coral deaths from ocean acidification and warming.
But the ecosystem has not been left to chance. In an effort spearheaded in part by the New England Aquarium, The Republic of Kiribati in 2008 declared more than 150,000 square miles of the region a protected area, making it at the time the largest protected marine area in the world.
Now there is Underwater Eden, a book edited by the Aquarium's Greg Stone, that chronicles the story of how conservationists, businesses and governments worked together to save one of the last truly wild places on earth. On Thursday, Nov. 8, at 6:30 p.m. the Aquarium will hold a free public talk with Stone and contributing authors Steve Bailey, Randi Rotjan, Heather Tausig of the Aquarium and legal consultant Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation to discuss how it happened.
The Green Blog caught up with the authors to ask them a few questions. Here are their edited responses.
Green Blog: How did the New England Aquarium begin to focus on Phoenix Islands?
Randi Rotjan and Heather Tausig: NEAq regularly leads and participates in expeditions to explore the world's oceans. From this effort, a signature project was born - the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), developed by the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati with the support of the NEAq and Conservation International. The recent PIPA expedition in June, a collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution examined how PIPA has changed, and is changing, in response to a changing climate.
GB: How do you get there?
Randi Rotjan: To get to the Phoenix Islands is no small feat, since they are approximately a thousand miles from anywhere. The best way to think of them geographically is to picture where the international dateline meets the equator – smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It requires about a week of travel in each direction. Most expeditions have left from Fiji; some from Samoa. From Fiji, it is a 5.5 day boat trip to the Phoenix Islands. All told, 11 days at sea, and 4 days of flights. Make sure you have a charged kindle!
GB: Describe the ocean life there.
Randi Rotjan: The ocean life is relatively untouched; the remoteness of the archipelago, coupled with the regulations of the marine protected area, protect the island areas from fishing, development, pollution, and other local threats. Hence the large presence of sharks, large fishes, giant clams, and others that are typically overharvested or rare.
GB: How did you work with locals to preserve the area given pressures of fishing, etc.?
Peter Shelley: Key to this project was acknowledging that the Kiribati people have spent millenia dependent on their reefs for survival. Thus, the protection of PIPA also needed to accommodate the nation's financial, health and education needs - that was the origin of the idea of adapting the conservation endowment “trust” model to the oceans of Kiribati.
GB: How are the reefs responding to climate change?
Randi Rotjan: However, while beautiful and relatively robust, the ocean life is still sensitive to global change, and recent high temperature events in 2002 and 2010 have taken their toll on even these remote reefs. Safe from a barrage of local threats, however, these reefs seem to be recovering faster than many others that are in closer proximity to human populations and the associated stressors.
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