Christopher Pala is based in Hawaii and has been working as a reporter since he graduated from the University of Geneva in 1974. He has covered stories in New Jersey, California, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, West Africa, Russia and Central Asia. Pala is also the author of The Oddest Place on Earth: Rediscovering the North Pole.
What made you want to write about Kiribati's marine reserve?
I heard a tiny report from Radio New Zealand announcing that Kiribati had decided to expand its Phoenix Islands Protected Area and thus make it the largest in the world. At the time, I was already planning to go to Tarawa to write a story on invasive algae for the New York Times, with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
Snorkeling in the islands off Tarawa and knowing there was even more fish in the Phoenix Islands.
When did the idea of marine preservation begin to develop?
Polynesian societies were well versed in the population dynamics of fish and knew when to hold back their fishing. If they didn't, starvation could ensue, for seafood was their main source of protein. In Hawaii, some violators were punished with death. It was the colonial process that turned fishing into a free-for-all, and since World War II, the technology for fishing has become so effective that fish stocks have dropped dramatically, prompting a backlash in the Pacific and a return to the ancient conservation methods before it was too late. Because the original inhabitants of the Caribbean have been wiped out, no such knowledge and tradition exists there, and the result is that the Caribbean reefs have lost most of their coral cover and fish populations and are in much worse shape than those in the Pacific.
Were you able to get up-close to the marine life? If so, could you describe some of your experiences?
Snorkeling off Tarawa, I saw giant Napoleon wrasses and other highly prized fish, larger than anything I'd seen before.
Was there anything fun or interesting that didn't make the final draft of the story?
The story of how Greg Stone persuaded the Kiribati government to create the reserve was mostly excised. It provided an object lesson on how a complete outsider can help a community realize its interests.