Phoenix Islands Protected Area World Heritage Site, Kiribati
Kiribati first declared the creation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) at the 2006 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil. On January 30, 2008, formal regulations were adopted, making it at that time the largest MPA on Earth. On August 1, 2010, PIPA was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and it remains today the largest, and deepest, World Heritage site on Earth. PIPA is an IUCN Wilderness Area; it includes eight atoll and low reef islands of the Kiribati section of the Phoenix Island group, two submerged reefs, Carondelet Reef and Winslow Reef, with Carondelet Reef being as little as 3 to 4 meters underwater at low tide, and a large number of seamounts – submerged mountains that are thought to be extinct volcanoes. Managed by an inter-ministerial committee, PIPA helps to conserve one of the world’s last remaining intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems.
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Size and Location
Located between Fiji and Hawaii in the central Pacific, PIPA is part of the Republic of Kiribati, the largest atoll nation in the world. Kiribati’s three island chains cover a land area of only 811 square kilometers (313 square miles), but its ocean territory contains over 3.5 million square kilometers (more than 1.3 million square miles). With 408,250 square kilometers (157,626 square miles- about the size of California) of marine and terrestrial habitats, PIPA is one of the largest marine conservation efforts of its kind by a Least Developed Country.
Flora and Fauna
This vast protected area is home to 19 species of breeding seabirds, including a globally important population of the endangered, endemic Phoenix Petrel (Pterodroma alba) –‘Te Ruru’ in the Kiribati language- along with 30 other species of migratory birds recorded. It is also home to 19 species of marine mammals, over 250 species of corals, 550 species of fish, and nesting sea turtles such as the endangered green (Chelonia mydas) and critically endangered hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate). Yet PIPA was the world’s first large, truly deep water, mid-ocean MPA and much of its area remains unexplored including over a dozen unnamed seamounts and deep sea areas reaching to 6,000 meters below sea level. The most breathtaking aspect of PIPA is not its diversity, but the size and numbers of individual animals due to its remoteness and therefore near-pristine ecosystems. Large giant clams (Tridacna sp.), schools of top predators such as sharks, Green bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) and Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) are found in numbers and sizes not seen on reefs with human populations due to fishing pressure.
PIPA’s lack of permanent habitation and isolation from humans has protected its splendor and allowed it to remain as reefs globally would have looked 1,000 years ago when untouched by humans.
However, real threats exist. Non-native, invasive species, such as rats, rabbits, and cats, have had a great impact on many islands. Since 2006 a successful island eradication program has removed invasive mammals from three of the eight islands, allowing nesting seabird populations to rebound.
Illegal fishing can have serious ramifications, especially in sensitive coral reefs and lagoon areas.
The main threat to PIPA though is global: coral bleaching and die offs due to increased severity and duration of ocean warming events.
During a 2002-2003 El Nino event PIPA suffered the most intense sea temperature ‘hotspot’ yet recorded, which resulted in massive mortality, averaging 60% across the island group and increasing to near 100% in the most sensitive habitats.
Monitoring has indicated that PIPA’s reefs are resilient and are bouncing back quickly. Ominously, climate change simulations show that the reefs of PIPA could face as high as a 70% chance of a severe bleaching event occurring in a given year as soon as the 2050s.