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South Tarawa, a part of Kirabati.

Wikimedia/Government of Kirabati

Kiribati commits to fishery-free reserve

HONOLULU—President Anote Tong of Kiribati pledged today that he would ban all commercial fishing at the end of the year in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a California-sized swath of Central Pacific waters that are among the world’s most biologically rich and intensely fished. The reserve, Tong said today at the televised opening of the Our Ocean conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., is “a major spawning ground for tuna, so its closure will have a major contribution to the conservation and rejuvenation of fish stocks and to global food security.”

The Central Pacific holds the last great tropical tuna fishery after stocks were depleted in other oceans. The closure will notably give a refuge to bigeye tuna, a species prized for sushi that, according to John Hampton, a fisheries scientist who heads the Oceanic Fisheries Programme of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in New Caledonia, has been overfished to about 20% to 30% of unexploited levels across the Pacific. The closure will allow the bigeye that live inside the reserve to reconstitute their genetic diversity and thus their resilience to both fishing and climate change, according to Jessica Meeuwig, director of the Centre for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia, Crawley. “We’ve got only two big areas of ocean fully closed to fishing, and this one is so rich and productive that the benefits are going to be outstanding,” says Meeuwig, who recently led an expedition to the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, the world’s biggest no-take area. (The third giant no-fishing area, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is located farther north and has fewer fish.)

Kiribati created PIPA in 2008 in partnership with Conservation International of Arlington, Virginia, and the New England Aquarium in Boston, but banned fishing in only 3% of the 408,250-square-kilometer reserve—the parts within 22 kilometers of PIPA’s eight uninhabited islands. Tong, however, has claimed in many speeches, interviews, and official documents that PIPA was immediately made “off-limits to fishing and other extractive uses.” This has drawn criticism from many conservationists. Peter Jones of University College London has called PIPA a “scam.”

According to Hampton, an average of 50,000 tonnes of tuna are taken out of the Phoenix Islands every year, which makes it the most fished, and overfished, marine protected area in the world. PIPA is only 11% of Kiribati’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), so the closure won’t have much effect on the catch of the fishing companies, Hampton says.

Tong flew last January from Honolulu to Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital island, in the private jet of philanthropist Ted Waitt, who made his fortune by founding the Gateway computer company. Several members of the Kiribati Parliament said in interviews that Waitt pledged to spend some $5 million on scientific projects and enforcement in PIPA. The next day, 29 January, Tong convened his Cabinet and they voted to close PIPA to fishing at the end of this year. The vote was a remarkable turnaround, as the reserve’s management plan called for only 25% more to be closed at the end of this year.

Much will depend on whether the closure is enforced. Kiribati so far has made no effort to keep fishing boats away from the reefs around the islands. But enforcing the fishing ban will be technically easier than in other giant reserves because PIPA sits inside Kiribati’s EEZ, a heavily fished area where fishing vessels are required to be licensed and to constantly transmit their position or face losing access to the fishing grounds.

Alan Friedlander, head of the Fisheries Ecology Research Lab at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, says that the fishing ban will not only allow the ocean-going species to grow back to their natural densities, but also benefit the reef fish populations, already among the healthiest in the world. Longliners, who use baited hooks to catch tuna, billfish, and sharks—and incidentally kill significant numbers of turtles and birds—are known to regularly fish close to islands, he says. “So there’s a lot of collateral damage from longline fisheries where they’re fishing close to shore,” he adds. “Closing the whole area will make it more difficult to cheat.”

Since the 2010 fishing ban in the Chagos Marine Reserve, marine scientists have been analyzing its impact and developing monitoring techniques that could be put to use in PIPA. “Our objective is to create a wired ocean,” says Barbara Block, a shark and tuna specialist at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, who led an expedition to the Chagos reefs. “We hope we can make this a model of how we can monitor all big, remote marine reserves.”

“We use lightly baited double underwater cameras to tell us who’s there, how big they are, and how numerous,” Meeuwig explains. “So far, we’ve had 129 midwater camera deployments that run for 3 hours.” The scientists viewing the footage filmed in the open ocean identified 1825 individual fish from 32 species—“more biodiversity than we expected,” she adds.

Meanwhile, catching and releasing fish allows the scientists to tag them, which tells them where the fish go and how many spend their whole lives inside the protected area. Tissue samples taken from those fish will allow for genetic analysis, which points to population size, and for molecular isotope analysis, which indicates what fish eat—something likely to change as the tuna population doubles over the next decade, changing the trophic structure.  

Michelle Grady, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ oceans work in Australia, says Kiribati’s example should encourage the new Australian federal government to implement its predecessor’s plan to close half of the Coral Sea to fishing. “If one of the poorest countries in the world can do it, so can we,” she says.