Friday, November 30, 2012

Exploring, and Saving, an Underwater Eden

I had the great good fortune to work with Dr. Gregory Stone of Conservation International and the New England Aquarium and Dr. David Obura of CORDIO East Africa (Coastal Oceans Rearch and Development in the Indian Ocean) on a splendid book, being published by the University of Chicago Press in December.

Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth details the story of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, or PIPA. In 1999, dive-boat operators Rob Barrell and Cat Holloway chanced to dive the waters off the remote Phoenix Islands. Located in the middle of the central Pacific, these low-lying coral atolls belong to the island nation of Kiribati. They are home to a tiny settlement of i-Kiribati on the island of Kanton, and hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds on the island of Rawaki. They have been home to a NASA listening station and an airstrip for PamAm's Clipper service. They may even be the final resting place of aviator Amelia Earhart.

In fact, Barrell's boat had been chartered by a group looking for evidence that Earhart's plane had gone down off Nikumaroro Island in the Phoenix chain. Anchored off Nikumaroro while their charter clients explored the island, Barrell and Holloway decided to dive the reefs. What they saw astonished them: spectacular coral reefs, schooling fish in mind-bloggling numbers, and healthy populations of sharks and invertebrates. Barrell and Holloway were experienced divers, used to seeing spectacular wildlife on charter dives in Fiji. Yet they were totally amazed by the Phoenix Island corals and their wildlife. It was a true underwater wilderness, seemingly untouched by human activity.

Barrell and Holloway surfaced, exhilarated and stunned by the health and beauty of the Phoenix Islands' reefs. They were convinced they had to act fast to preserve the pristine coral oasis, to prevent it from the overfishing and degradation common throughout the Pacific. They reached out to Stone, then with the New England Aquarium, explaining what they had seen, and inviting him to see it for himself. The result was the first New England Aquarium expedition to the Phoenix Islands in 2000. That first expedition set in motion a chain of events with profound consequences for the Phoenix Islands as well as the people of Kiribati. After additional expeditions in 2002 and 2005, the government of Kiribati moved in 2006 to protect the islands, establishing the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, within which most commercial fishing is banned. PIPA now protects over 408,000 square kilometers of ocean waters, as well as the islands, atolls, and seamounts within its borders.

More expeditions have followed. In 2010 PIPA was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first marine park to be so designated. Now the establishment of PIPA is sending ripples through the central Pacific. Other island nations are looking to PIPA as a model for their own protected areas, and a chain of new marine wildlife preserves is beginning to dot the map, an expanding oceanscape of hope. 

You can read the full story in the participants' own words in Underwater Eden and hear Stone's account in his 2010 TED Talk and follow the latest PIPA news on the Aquarium's PIPA blog.

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