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Voyage to the Remote Phoenix Islands

Voyage to the Remote Phoenix Islands

Eight atolls in the Pacific represent the world's largest marine protected area

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The Phoenix Islands aren’t obvious on a map—eight scattered coral atolls barely above sea level in the equatorial western Pacific. These specks form the most remote coral island archipelago in the world, 1,000 miles from large airports on Hawaii and Fiji and equally far from the capital of their own country of Kiribati.

These tiny reef-fringed islands are the core of the world’s largest marine protected area, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). It was established in 2008 by the government of Kiribati, working with the New England Aquarium (NEAq) and Conservation International, through the efforts of scientist Greg Stone, senior vice president for exploration and conservation at NEAq.

This September, Stone led an international team of scientists, divers, photographers, and Kiribati officials on an expedition to PIPA to survey the islands, reefs, and ocean for the first time since they were protected. Larry Madin, director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and also a marine biologist and diver, joined the expedition to help survey undersea life. He also collected coral samples, which several WHOI scientists study.

Few scientists have studied, or even seen, PIPA’s reefs. “The islands, which are almost entirely uninhabited, are among the least disturbed by humans in the world,” Stone said.

“Least disturbed,” though, is not undisturbed: The islands’ remoteness hasn’t protected them from two great scourges that are harming reefs worldwide. The first is overfishing, which disrupts the coral ecosystem. The second is warmer water temperatures, which kill corals’ symbiotic algae, causing the corals to bleach and die. Though people may not be able to do  much to prevent warming oceans, they can take steps to deter overfishing. The scientists believe that protecting this area from human activities, including fishing, will allow corals to recover faster from bleaching than reefs in regions where reefs are subject to coastal development and pollution.

During the expedition, the United States and Kiribati signed an historic agreement establishing a relationship between PIPA and the largest U.S. marine reserve, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’ Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Together, the two marine reserves represent one-quarter of the total area of all the marine protected areas in the world. They will also provide natural laboratories to learn how relatively undisturbed ocean ecosystems are responding to Earth’s changing climate and perhaps find ways to mitigate its impacts on essential coral reef systems.

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