The Pacific island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bahss) has designated one of the world’s largest MPAs in a bid to guard against overfishing and climate change. The nearly uninhabited Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), encompassing 184,700 km2 with eight atolls and two submerged reef systems, covers an area more than half the size of Germany. Located midway between Fiji and Hawai’i in the Central Pacific, the PIPA contains near-pristine coral ecosystems, with more than 120 species of coral and hundreds of species of fish, including the world’s highest population densities of Napoleon wrasse, according to scientists.

The protected area will be funded through an endowment being initiated with private funding from Conservation International, a NGO. The endowment will finance administration of the protected area and also compensate the Kiribati government for lost revenue suffered from cancellation of fishing licenses to foreign fleets. Although a management plan for the site is not expected to be set for another year or so, it is anticipated that commercial inshore reef fishing, including by foreign vessels, will be banned in the PIPA.

Subsistence reef fishing by the fewer than 50 residents of the Phoenix Islands archipelago will be allowed to continue. The PIPA also includes deep water, and it is unclear yet whether commercial fishing for offshore pelagics, like tuna, will be allowed. The endowment is projected to last in perpetuity, assuming management of the protected area is administered in good faith by the Kiribati government.

“If the coral and reefs are protected, then the fish will thrive and grow and bring us benefit,” said Kiribati President Anote Tong, announcing the PIPA designation in March in conjunction with the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in Curitiba, Brazil. “In this way, all species of fish can be protected so none become depleted or extinct.” The PIPA announcement was accompanied by commitments from other island nations at the CBD meeting to expand protection for their coastal waters (see box, “The Micronesia Challenge”, at the end of this article).

The endowment

The geographic isolation of Kiribati and its Phoenix Islands archipelago (one of three island groups in the nation) has historically insulated the area from outside pressures. But foreign fleets have expressed growing interest in fishing there and the threat of climate change looms: a bleaching event occurred in the Phoenix Islands for the first time in 2003. “With recent advances in the fishing industry and impacts of global climate change, isolation can no longer be relied on to conserve these atolls,” says Kiribati Environment Minister Martin Puta Tofinga.

To launch the development of a management plan and the endowment, the Kiribati government signed a memorandum of understanding with two organizations: Conservation International (CI) and the New England Aquarium. CI, through its Global Conservation Fund, is financing the initiation phase of the PIPA and is beginning capitalization of the endowment, to be expanded with matching funds from private and public institutions. The size of the endowment will depend on the value of the fisheries to be closed, as well as projected PIPA administration costs; the final figure is being researched. The New England Aquarium, based in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, has conducted biological surveys in the Phoenix Islands since 2000, and was first to initiate talks with the Kiribati government regarding protection of the ecosystem. The aquarium will continue to provide research support for the PIPA and assist with developing its management plan.

Greg Stone, vice president of global marine programs for the New England Aquarium, says creating the PIPA is the only way to mitigate and protect reefs from climate change. “With climate change, there’s not much you can do for reefs to mitigate on-the-ground impacts except for removing all other existing threats,” he says. He adds that because of the healthy fish populations and lack of direct human impacts in the Phoenix Islands, the reefs there are recovering quickly from the 2003 bleaching event. In their excellent condition, he says, the Phoenix Islands are essentially a baseline reef – a control site. “They offer a valuable reference point for measuring the impact of climate change on reef systems there and elsewhere,” he says.

The endowment will be similar to ones enacted by CI to protect South American rainforests. In an essay in the October 2005 issue of MPA News, CI personnel described the application of this tool – termed “conservation incentive agreements” – to MPAs through the provision of continuous, long-term financial incentives to conserve marine resources rather than exploit them for short-term gain (“Conservation Incentive Agreements As a Tool for Developing and Managing MPAs”, MPA News 7:4). The PIPA endowment will be overseen by a board of managers including CI, the government of Kiribati, and others.

Funding is contingent upon proper PIPA management by Kiribati. “If protection ever stops, the money goes away,” says Stone. It is anticipated that other national governments will assist with management. New Zealand, for example, has indicated its willingness to provide flyovers by enforcement aircraft to guard against illegal activity in the Phoenix Islands.

The PIPA will help Kiribati meet international treaty obligations, including the Convention on Biological Diversity’s protected area goal to create comprehensive, effectively managed, and ecologically representative systems of MPAs by 2012. The government is also considering pursuing listing of the Phoenix Islands as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Depending on how one defines “marine protected area”, the PIPA could be considered the world’s third largest MPA, behind only the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Australia) and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (USA). The list would exclude areas closed to certain fishing gear, some of which are several times larger.

The PIPA includes a 60-nm boundary around each of its atolls, which in most cases rise no more than 2 meters above sea level. The protected area comprises 5% of the entire EEZ of Kiribati, the largest atoll nation in the world. Kiribati includes two other, more-populated island groups in addition to the Phoenix Islands.

Websites with more information on the PIPA include:

For more information:

Greg Stone, New England Aquarium, Central Wharf, Boston, MA 02110, USA. Tel: +1 617 973 5229; E-mail:

Tukabu Teroroko, Chair, Kiribati Interagency Phoenix Islands Committee, Kiribati. Tel: +686 28507; E-mail:

Sue Miller Taei, Marine Program Manager, Pacific Islands, Conservation International, Western Samoa. Tel: +685 21593; E-mail:

BOX: The Micronesia Challenge

Government leaders in the Micronesia region, spread over 3 million miles of the Western Pacific, have joined together to pledge to protect 30% of their nearshore marine ecosystems by 2020. Termed “The Micronesia Challenge”, the commitment is being led by Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and the US territories of Guam and Northern Marianas Islands. It was formally announced at the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in Curitiba, Brazil, in March 2006. The pledge also includes a commitment to protect 20% of their terrestrial ecosystems by 2020.

Palau President H.E. Tommy Remengesau said his nation intends in the intervening years to be the first in the world to achieve, and surpass, having at least 10% of each of its ecological regions effectively conserved. Guam Governor Felix Camacho said conservation would be the key to establishing Micronesia as a world-class tourism destination, and would set an example for the rest of the world. Also at the CBD meeting, the Caribbean island nation of Grenada pledged to put 25% of its nearshore marine resources under effective conservation by 2020.

An IUCN press release on the Micronesia Challenge is available online at