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The waters around the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (yellow and blueback fusiliers) hold some of the world's most pristine coral reefs (Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Image Collection)

Our Imperiled Oceans: Victory at Sea

The world's largest protected area, established this year in the remote Pacific, points the way to restoring marine ecosystems

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At first sight, the people of Kiribati, a nation of tiny islands in the central Pacific, would not appear to be model conservationists. Trash is abundant all along Tarawa, the capital island, a skinny atoll shaped like a backward L and crammed with 40,000 people. (It was the site of one of the costliest landings in World War II, in which 1,000 U.S. marines were killed.) The rustic charm of the traditional thatched houses, which have raised platform floors and no walls, is offset by the smell of human waste wafting from the beaches. The groundwater is contaminated. Infant mortality is high, life expectancy low. And yet this past January impoverished Kiribati established the world's largest protected area, a marine reserve the size of California.

It surrounds the Phoenix Islands, a remote, largely unpopulated archipelago 1,000 miles east of Tarawa. The 158,000-square-mile Phoenix Islands Protected Area, covering about 12 percent of Kiribati's watery domain, holds some of the world's most pristine coral reefs as well as a great abundance and diversity of tropical marine life. And it's the first reserve to place such a large area of open ocean off-limits to commercial fishing. The reserve is one of the planet's ecological bright spots, the boldest, most dramatic effort to save the oceans' coral reefs, the richest habitat in the seas. No wonder the I-Kiribati (pronounced ee-kiri-bahs, which is what the people call themselves; the country is pronounced kiri-bahs) want to showcase the reserve as a uniquely un- spoiled center for marine science, recreational diving and eco-tourism.

Though coral reefs cover less than half a percent of the oceans' area, they host more than 25 percent of its fish species. The first worldwide assessment of coral reefs, released this summer, showed that a third face extinction due to climate change, disease, pollution and overfishing. Australia has outlawed fishing along a third of the Great Barrier Reef to stem the decline of fish stocks there. Palau, a prime scuba-diving destination in the western Pacific, has created a series of no-take areas to protect its healthiest reefs, which amount to a third of its coastline. Other Pacific island governments agreed to do the same, in what they dubbed the "Micronesia Challenge." The Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, all of whose waters are severely overfished, have responded with a "Caribbean Challenge," which will set aside a fifth of their waters for coral and fish recovery.

In the United States, the largest protected area is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, established in 2006 around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It's about 140,000 square miles, larger than all the other U.S. national parks put together. Commercial fishing is expected to be phased out in the area by 2011. The reserve is home to rare and endangered fish as well as turtles, whales, seals and birds.

Marine reserves have proved to be even more effective than researchers hoped. In a recent study of more than 600 miles of coastline in the Great Barrier Reef where fishing was banned only two years earlier, populations of a popular grouper, locally known as the coral trout, were up to 68 percent higher than in areas where fishing had continued.

"It's much better to conserve than to rehabilitate," says Alan Friedlander, a fisheries ecologist with the biogeography branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu. "An area as large and as pristine as the Phoenix Islands still has all the pieces of the puzzle that we need to understand how a reef ecosystem works. It's going to tell us what we need to know to use the most effective methods to rehabilitate the reefs where overfishing collapses the delicate balance of nature."

Gregory Stone, a marine biologist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, is one of the prime movers behind the Kiribati reserve. He got a call from Rob Barrel, the operator of a luxury dive boat based in Fiji, who was assembling a group of scientists to study the islands in 2000 on behalf of some conservation-minded divers. Stone jumped at the chance to visit what he calls "the last unexplored oceanic coral reef archipelago in the world."

It was an eye-opening 11 days. "We were completely blown away by the density of marine life we saw—none of us had seen anything like it," Stone recalls. "We would dive into schools of big fish that were so thick they dulled the sunlight like clouds passing above. Looking down, we saw thousands of smaller fish blanketing the reef like flocks of birds." Off the island of Hull, he adds, "the density of giant clams was more than I'd even known existed. There were hundreds of thousands of them, their mantles were like a kaleidoscope."

David Obura, of the Coral Reef Degradation in the Indian Ocean project and chief coral scientist for the trip, says he was astonished by "the first pristine fish populations and the most healthy corals I'd ever seen. It was wild—constant movement and colors, fish streaming in rivers along the reef in one direction, then back the next moment, continually shifting and changing like tributaries in a delta, forming and re-forming. We'd see huge balls of fish that would envelop us and move on."

"For me," Stone says, "it was the first time I had seen what the ocean may have been like thousands of years ago."

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