Imagine coming upon an oasis in the middle of the ocean largely untouched by humans--a place where the natural abundance and diversity of biological life and activity can bring thoughts of Eden and Shangri-La to the minds of even seasoned marine scientists. That place is the Phoenix Islands, an oceanic archipelago located in the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean. Protected from most human interactions by their physical remoteness and difficulty of access, their lack of adequate freshwater sources for habitation, and their distance from the major oceanic trading routes, the Phoenix Islands are much like they have been for thousands of years.
Comprising eight atolls, only one of which, Kanton, is inhabited by a minimal administrative unit of about 50 people, the Phoenix Islands were comprehensively explored in 2001 and 2003 by a team of experienced marine biologists led by Dr. Greg Stone of the New England Aquarium. Visiting seven of the eight atolls, the team discovered extraordinarily intact and complete marine archipelagic ecosystems--containing species ranging from teeming bird populations on the atolls themselves to high densities of apex reef predators, such as sharks. Fully functional coral reef ecosystems supported vast marine populations in the middle of the comparatively barren open ocean.
In an event that a number of Kiribati government officials later described as unusual, the research team made a point of relaying their extraordinary findings back to the government on Tarawa. These critical early meetings established a vital connection between expedition head Dr. Greg Stone and the energetic Kiribati President Anote Tong. Through these seminal discussions, the two leaders quickly came to realize that the highest and best value of the Phoenix Islands, for the people of Kiribati as well as the world, would probably be to take steps to preserve their unusual ecological value. Conservation International, a leader in biodiversity conservation in the Pacific region, also joined the effort to preserve this unique archipelagic resource area, which became known as the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).
Protecting the Phoenix Islands, however, created an immediate challenge. Fdribati is limited in natural resources, and a significant portion of its annual governmental operating budget comes from license fees paid by distant water fishing nations (DWFN) for tuna fishing privileges in Kiribati waters and its 200-mile marine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), comprising roughly 35 % of the national budget on average. (1) While President Tong and his government saw the conceptual, strategic, and moral importance of preserving the outstanding biodiversity present in the Phoenix Islands, budgetary and political considerations required that any protection initiative not come at the expense of other pressing national funding priorities or state sovereignty.
Out of these early conversations, a proposal emerge--dubbed a "reverse fishing license" by one Kiribati minister--that would allow the protection of the Phoenix Islands. Patterned on several terrestrial conservation concessions that Conservation International had pioneered to protect critical forest resources on land, the government would protect critical marine, reef, and terrestrial resources of the Phoenix Islands archipelago for their biodiversity value. In return, the government would be compensated from a dedicated conservation trust for the PIPA-related management costs and for any diminished foreign access revenues associated with the closure of the waters around the Phoenix Islands to commercial fishing in the future.
From its earliest inception PIPA was based on an understanding that long-term success would require a partnership in which the international conservation community aligned its interests and agenda with the interests and agenda of the Kiribati people. …