Massive marine protected area is an even bigger sham

Kiribati boasts one of the world's largest no-fishing reserves, but its marine life is anything but safe

Published September 1, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

Binata Pinata stands on top of a rock holding a fish her husband Kaibakia just caught off Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, May 25, 2013.     (Reuters)
Binata Pinata stands on top of a rock holding a fish her husband Kaibakia just caught off Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, May 25, 2013. (Reuters)

This originally appeared on Earth Island Journal.

Meet President Anote Tong of Kiribati, a Central Pacific country of three-dozen postcard-pretty coral atolls that may become uninhabitable someday because global warming is causing ocean levels to rise. Tong, 61, has been in power for a decade, during which time he has become a darling of the environmental community, a fixture at climate change conferences who is showered with prizes and praise. His signal achievement? Under his leadership, Kiribati (pronounced KEE-ree-bahss) created the 150,000-square-mile Phoenix Islands Protected Area, “a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.” That exact phrase, according to Google, appears on more than 600 websites, including Tong’s Wikipedia page. Most impressive, the reserve lies in one of the most intensively fished areas in the world, home to the last large stocks of tuna. “What moved the tiny country to take this monumental action?” a typical news article in recently asked. “President Anote Tong says Kiribati is sending a message to the world: ‘We need to make sacrifices to provide a future for our children and grandchildren.’”

In a speech that he gave at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit last January, Tong mentions “the initiative of my country in closing off 400,000 square kilometers of our [waters] from commercial fishing activities, … our contribution to global oceans conservation efforts.” Scrolling under the speech, I read that The Pacific Calling Partnership, an Australian nonprofit, “is honored to commend President Tong for consideration as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 or 2014.”

Now meet Gregory Stone, a prominent marine scientist, former Pew Fellow, and senior vice president of the New England Aquarium. In 2000, Stone went diving in the Phoenix Islands, which had been uninhabited for 20 years, and found them to be so abundant in now rare reef fish like sharks, Napoleon wrasses, and bumphead parrotfish that he persuaded Tong to create a marine reserve to protect them against future fishing. Tong liked the idea and decided the reserve should be the size of California, about 11 percent of the country’s waters. Stone brought the project to the environmental NGO Conservation International, a 26-year-old offshoot of The Nature Conservancy. The reserve soon became a centerpiece of CI’s work, the first project mentioned in its Wikipedia page. Stone became senior vice president and chief scientist for oceans at CI while keeping his title at the New England Aquarium. Last year, Tong joined CI’s board, where he gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Harrison Ford, CI’s vice-chairman. Tong, gushes a profile on CI’s website, “has gone further than almost anyone to protect the planet’s most pristine waters for the global good.”

As recently as March of this year, the New England Aquarium’s website echoed such boasts: “Today, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, and is safe from the threats of commercial fishing and habitat destruction.” (Since I started asking hard questions, the aquarium has edited its website and removed that last phrase.)

There’s just one problem with this stirring story: It’s a lie.

Today, marine life inside the reserve is anything but safe. When it was created, fishing was banned only inside small circles around the eight islands, about 3 percent of the total area. That wasn’t hard: There was almost no fishing going on there to begin with, which is why the reef fish were so abundant. But in the rest of the reserve, highly profitable industrial fishing for skipjack tuna, the species most often used for canning, has only increased since 2008, even as the fishery’s own scientists say current levels are unsustainable and must be reduced. Last year, an estimated 50,000 tons of tuna were taken inside the reserve. While other marine reserves provide for some fishing, none allows fishing on such a scale.

At the same time, Tong has defied efforts, spearheaded by an association of Pacific Ocean states to which Kiribati belongs, to prevent overfishing in the region. He also has made a sweetheart deal with the Spanish fishing fleet that has drawn accusations of corruption and a thumbs-down vote by a European Parliament panel.

Within the marine conservation community, Tong’s and CI’s misrepresentation of the Phoenix Island Protected area has frayed relationships and sparked distrust. The head of a large conservation group, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: “CI is giving marine conservation a bad name by lying like that.”

I first set foot in Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital island, in 2008. The country is made up of three archipelagoes more than 500 miles apart: the Line Islands, south of Hawai‘i; the uninhabited Phoenix Islands in the center; and the Gilbert Islands to the west, where Tarawa is located. Tarawa is a skinny atoll shaped like a sideways L, with 60,000 people crowded in the horizontal part of the L.

The atoll is a curious mixture of heaven and hell. Aquamarine waters lap at palm-fringed beaches that are, in the populated area, speckled by human waste, for there are few sewers. Since the island is on average only a few hundred yards wide, the smell is never far. On the windward side, much of the coastline is spoiled by a phenomenal variety of trash. The unpopulated areas, located just a half-hour’s drive away, are spectacularly pristine.

When I first interviewed Tong five years ago, he seemed strangely unenthusiastic about the Phoenix Islands reserve. “We did it (created the reserve) for the publicity value,” he said, because he was worried that rising sea levels would soon render his islands uninhabitable and he wanted the international community to pay for his people’s relocation.

He said then that closing the whole reserve right away was out of the question because it would cost Kiribati several million dollars a year in lost revenue from fishing licenses to foreign fleets (its annual budget is roughly $120 million). “Your catch will be reduced over a fixed period, common sense would suggest that,” he told me. And if the fishers’ income were reduced, they in turn would insist on reducing their fees to Kiribati, he explained. A trust fund with about $100 million would be necessary to offset these losses. I told him I thought that was a bit unrealistic, and he allowed with a shrug that a gradual approach might work.

“We’re waiting for CI to make a much more firm commitment,” Tong told me at the time. He said that, after several years of talks, CI offered a goal of $35 million for the trust fund, providing $700,000 or so a year in interest for compensation, while Kiribati was asking for at least twice that much. “There is a bit of a gap,” he said.

At the time, various experts, including John Hampton, the oceanic fisheries program manager at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, told me that if Kiribati stood firm with the foreign fishing companies, it could close the reserve without losing any income. “Purse seiners need wide areas to operate, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of them would stop fishing in Kiribati just because they’re losing 11 percent of it,” Hampton said. “But I’m sure foreign fishing interests will use the closure as a tool when they negotiate their fishing contracts, so the loss of revenue for Kiribati will depend on how well they negotiate.”

Other people familiar with the fishery explained that tuna swim far and fast, so the fleets could easily avoid fishing inside the reserve and still bring in the same catch. Whenever I told Stone about these facts in phone interviews and emails and asked him exactly how the compensation was being calculated, he would change the subject.

I finally met him in person in late 2009 when he came through Honolulu, where I was living. By then I had written a half-dozen magazine articles about the reserve, and we had become as friendly as a journalist and a source can be. I had him over for lunch and found him affable and modest to a fault, the only person I know who still practices the ancient art of flattery.

The compensation talks had gone nowhere, he said. A first agreement had called for Stone raising an initial $25 million for the trust fund, at which point 25 percent more of the reserve would be closed, to a total of 28 percent. The process was later described in great detail by Eduard Niesten and Peter Shelley in Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth, a book Stone organized and to which I contributed a chapter on the Phoenix Islands’ history.

By then, several people, including one at CI, had told me that raising $25 million to close 25 percent of the reserve was unattainable, let alone the $100 million for the whole thing. “The business plan made sense, but it was prohibitively expensive,” said one funder who asked to remain anonymous.

Something wasn’t right. Why, and how, could Stone commit to raising an impossibly large amount of money and yet show no interest in persuading Tong that he could close the reserve at no cost to his government? Stone again sidestepped questions. He told me, as he tells everyone, that creating marine reserves takes time and patience.

By 2010, I started noticing that Tong, the New England Aquarium, and CI were describing the Phoenix reserve as fully closed to fishing. “PIPA [the Phoenix Islands Protected Area] is completely off-limits to commercial fishing and other activities,” CI’s website declared. (The organization has since posted a correction to its website.) By then a detailed management plan had been published on the PIPA website. It clearly stated that only 3.12 percent of the reserve was closed to fishing. The plan also said that the demand for closing an additional 25 percent of the area had been reduced from $25 million to $13.5, of which $8.5 million was for compensation.

For his part, Tong had emerged as an eloquent spokesman for the denizens of atolls condemned to exile by the thoughtlessness of carbon-emitting nations. In his speeches and writings, he usually anchored his moral authority in the sacrifice his people made by creating the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. In 2011, during the Durban climate change conference, Tong published a piece mentioning how some First Nation Canadians had saved a rainforest and called it their gift to the world. “The phrase struck a chord with me, because the people of Kiribati have also made such a gift,” he wrote. “Three years ago, we declared 160,000 square miles of our Phoenix Islands a fully protected marine park, off limits to fishing and to any extractive use.”

I couldn’t get over the gap between the facts as I knew them and the public relations bragging I kept seeing. “Greg, you can’t lie like that; it’s wrong, why don’t you just call it a work in progress?” I would tell Stone in a series of phone calls. “Chris, you don’t understand,” he would reply. “These things take time.” He would inevitably bring up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in which the no-fishing zone was gradually increased to about a third of the whole area. I would say that Australia never claimed it was all no-take, and that the fisheries in the rest were closely managed. And, I reminded him, the other three of the world’s giant no-take marine reserves (America’s Northwestern Hawai‘ian Islands, the British Chagos Islands and the Australian part of the Coral Sea) were all closed in a single action, not gradually.

In 2011, Stone received from Wendy Benchley, the widow of Jaws author Peter Benchley, a Benchley Award for Ocean Science for his role in creating the Phoenix reserve. A year later, Tong was awarded the presidential Benchley for Excellence in National Stewardship of the Ocean. The head of the Blue Frontier Foundation, which administers the Benchleys, is David Helvarg, who had penned a profile of Tong in The Nation headlined “Interview with a Drowning President.” In the piece, he described Tong’s supposed achievement: “His government declared 150,000 square miles of the Phoenix Islands marine area a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.”

So I called Helvarg. He admitted he had no idea that fishing was prohibited in only in 3 percent of the Phoenix reserve. “I had assumed that all of it was no-take,” he explained, sounding surprised. “You try to do due diligence on everything, but you don’t always succeed,” he added with a sigh. “But Tong still deserves the prize for protecting the reefs” and for raising awareness of how rising sea levels threaten his country, he said.

Then I saw that Tong had won a Leadership Award from the Hillary Institute in New Zealand. And he received the award for climbing which personal Everest? “In 2008,” the institute website says, “under his leadership, Kiribati made a grand gift to the world: it declared 150,000 square miles of its Phoenix Islands marine area a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.” So I contacted the institute’s executive director, Mark Prain, on Skype. I watched him squirm as I told him the truth, and listened to him insist that it didn’t matter because Tong really got the prize for his climate change work. (Apparently, neither did it matter enough for Prain to correct his website.)

At this point, I was beginning to wonder if Tong ever had any intention of closing the reserve. Was all this an elaborate scam, where both sides would pretend to endlessly negotiate for compensation for nonexistent losses while receiving prizes and prestige for a nonachievement? And how could Stone ask for millions to partially close a marine reserve from people who inevitably would have heard that it was already closed?

Meanwhile, the trust fund was still empty and the cash kept flowing into the Kiribati government’s accounts from the tuna fishing fleet operating inside the reserve.

More disturbingly to some environmentalists, Kiribati’s success in winning international recognition without actually restricting fishing was spawning imitators. At the end of August 2012, at a regional meeting in the Cook Islands, its prime minister, Henry Puna, announced the creation of what he called the world’s biggest marine park – 400,000 square miles of the southern, largely un-fished half of the islands’ waters. But Ben Ponia, the secretary of marine resources, later wrote to me: “The marine park will not regulate fisheries.” At the same meeting, the self-governing French territory of New Caledonia announced that, inspired by the example of Kiribati, it was creating an even larger reserve, at 540,000 square miles. It was the same story there, too. “It’s too early to say whether there will be any restrictions on fishing,” said project spokeswoman Anne-Claire Goarant, stressing that the announcement was just the beginning of a multi-year consultation process.

The two reserves were part of a grandiose scheme called the “Pacific Oceanscape” fathered by CI and Tong to string a necklace of giant marine reserves across the Pacific. Were they also destined to become paper parks?

At a glittering party last November at Wendy Benchley’s gorgeous Washington, DC house for the launch of the book Underwater Eden, Stone assured me that at a recent CI board meeting, Tong had announced that the decision had been taken to close the reserve completely. A few days later, I got an email from Tiarite Kwong, the environment minister, addressed to Stone and copied to me. It said, “As communicated to you (Stone) at the LA board meeting, HE the President has reaffirmed the position of his Cabinet to fully close PIPA with immediate effect.”

I didn’t believe him. “A statement from a Kiribati Minister was not sufficient?” Stone asked me. It wasn’t. I knew that closing the reserve at a time when tuna prices were soaring would make a huge ruckus, and I would have heard of it. Just to be sure, I wrote to Julio Moròn, the head of the association of Spanish purse-seiners, many of whom fish in Kiribati under Ecuadorean flags. He wrote back that he knew of no closure plans and warned that closure “would be most detrimental to the economic interest of the Kiribati Government that obtains good revenue from the licenses fees that they sell to the 260 purse seine vessels that operate in the region …. For us, it will suppose a serious setback for the normal fishing operation in the Central Pacific region.”

The best time to close the reserve was now, since the fleets were making huge profits on their catch. Why wasn’t Tong doing it? To try to answer the question, and to finally figure out what was going on, I applied for a travel grant from the Ocean Foundation. In April I was back in Tarawa.

Nothing seemed to have changed except that the main road was worse. If Kiribati was making more money from tuna licenses (2012’s fisheries income of $60 million was double 2011’s), the government wasn’t spending it on anything visible. There were still few bathrooms, so people kept using the beach – unfortunately, above the high-tide line. Delicious fresh reef fish and small skipjack were still sold along the road and the I-Kiribati, as the people call themselves, were as handsome, kind, and absurdly generous as ever.

I stopped by the office of the Phoenix Island Protected Area, known as PIPA, where Tukabu Tereroko, its director, brought me up to speed. Rats had been eradicated in three islands, rabbits in a fourth, all by international groups. Compensation talks had dragged on for a decade with no agreement in sight. Neither CI nor the government had fulfilled their initial pledges to each put $2.5 million in the trust fund. The $5 million had nothing to do with compensation, Tereroko said; it was supposed to create enough interest income to run the reserve itself, which is now operating on an $850,000 grant from the UN’s Global Environment Fund.

The parliament was in session and three MPs were staying at my hotel. Questions about PIPA were met with furrowed eyebrows. Wasn’t it closed to fishing long ago? Everyone seemed to think so.

President Tong received me in his office in the futuristic parliament building. Half Chinese and half I-Kiribati, educated in New Zealand and Britain, he wore a Western shirt and the typical skirt favored by politicians. His manner was chilly and dry when I asked him about PIPA.

“We’re still deciding what the compensation level should be,” he replied. But did he really think the international community would give Kiribati millions of dollars in compensation for unproven losses when its income from tuna – the main beneficiary of closing PIPA – was doubling, and saving the tuna was in Kiribati’s own interest? “I think it’s really possible,” he said serenely.

And that cabinet decision the environment minister had emailed me about? “The decision has been taken to close it (to all fishing),” Tong said with perfect aplomb. But when? “We left that to the management plan, I think it’s got to be done progressively.”

As for the $2.5 million, Tong said it would be unwise to use the windfall profits from tuna licenses to make good on the initial commitment. “We are trying to source that funding,” he said.

I was stunned. Tong had no intention of closing PIPA anytime soon or spending any money on it, even though several politicians I interviewed told me that, with his large parliamentary majority, he could easily win a vote to allocate the $2.5 million.

I also asked Tong about the association of eight Pacific islands nations in whose waters most of the Pacific tuna is caught. Called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), it was set up with two goals. First, reduce the total catch to a sustainable level and give each country a quota of vessel/days to sell each year to the foreign fleets. Second, increase the countries’ share of the profits from the fishery, currently at 8 percent of the landed value of the fish, by setting a uniform price per vessel/day that all eight countries would charge.

At the PNA meeting last March, Kiribati shocked its partners by announcing that last year it sold almost twice as many days as its quota allowed, which is how it doubled its fisheries income. Later, the PNA, citing a study it had commissioned on the profits of the fleets, proposed raising the vessel/day fee from $5,000 to $8,000. To the other members’ fury, Kiribati vetoed the proposal and came back with the number of $6,000 vessel/day, which was adopted.

In our interview, Tong told me, “I am critical of the vessel/day scheme; it doesn’t seem to be fair.” He argued that Kiribati should be allowed to fish as much as it wanted and when it wanted. “We have more fish, so we should have more days,” he said.

This is the man CI describes as having taken “extraordinary measures to set an example for the rest of the world?”

There was more. Ignoring the PNA rules that all fishing licenses come under the group’s vessel/day arrangement, Kiribati signed a side deal with a fleet of four giant Spanish purse seiners. Not only did the deal not involve any limits to the number of days fished or the amount of fish caught, but a Greenpeace estimate of the probable catch found that the per-day fee would be $3,600, just over half the going rate. “This agreement is completely against all EU development policies,” said Isabella Lovin of Sweden, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on development and fisheries, in an interview from Brussels. She called for it not to pass; on June 24 the parliament’s development committee voted it down. The agreement will come up for a full parliament vote this fall.

“President Tong has been misleading the world about the true status of the PIPA marine reserve,” wrote Greenpeace ocean campaigner Seni Nabou in an email from Fiji. “Whilst the world has hailed Kiribati for its conservation efforts, it seems it has only helped the Spanish tuna fleets fish in their waters instead. President Tong now needs to deliver on the talk.”

On my last evening in Tarawa, minibuses were scarce and I got a ride to my hotel from a man in a little old car. He turned out to be Teburoro Tito, Tong’s predecessor as president and a member of parliament. He was scathing about Tong. “He’s simply using the PIPA as a way of promoting his own personal image to the outside world,” he said. He recalled firing Tong as fisheries minister because he lied about tax improprieties.

Tito said almost no one knew that only 3 percent of the reserve was closed to fishing, or that Tong was going around the world saying it was “off limits to fishing and other extractive uses,” or that Kiribati had sold 80 percent more than its PNA allotment in vessel/days in 2012. “The people of Kiribati,” he wrote to me, “will be disappointed to learn that their president had lied to the world and particularly those who were led to believe that he deserved prestigious awards. He must close PIPA immediately to salvage the country’s honor.”

In May, I spent an hour and a half on the phone with Stone. He wouldn’t say much on the record, but he insisted he was still optimistic that the $13.5 million would be raised by the end of next year. And he told me CI had decided to accelerate an ongoing process and put in its $2.5 million share of the trust fund “in a few weeks.” A month later, Stone sent me an email saying the money would be disbursed “this year” and declined further comment. On July 19, Kevin Connor, CI’s spokesman, declined to answer further questions, saying only of Kiribati’s approach to marine conservation: “We believe their efforts should be supported, not criticized.”

For an explanation of CI’s all-boast-and-no-results behavior, I turned to Jay Nelson. He recently retired from running The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program, which had coaxed governments into setting aside the world’s three largest, no-take marine reserves in Hawai‘i, the Chagos islands, and the Coral Sea. “Every group declares victory prematurely from time to time, but this is a very extreme situation,” Nelson said. By declaring the reserve fully closed five years ago or so, “they’ve used their ‘success’ in Kiribati in their work in the Cook Islands and elsewhere, so there is some logic to their approach. But I suspect that CI might have been given pause if they had fully realized how this was going to play out.”

He said CI should admit it won’t be able to raise the $50 million or more that Kiribati is demanding “and tell President Tong to immediately close the area to fishing so that it lives up to its claim as a world-class marine reserve.”

I asked Stone by email if he wanted to join the growing chorus of people who say that Tong should do the right thing and close the reserve now. He declined.

In the end, the fate of the reserve is entirely in Tong’s hands. Kiribati politicians point out that the cabinet has already voted to close the reserve to fishing, so it’s just a matter of implementation. And the Western diplomats, fisheries professionals, and politicians I spoke to in Tarawa agreed that given a choice between antagonizing his Spanish patrons and salvaging his reputation so he can get a top job in the climate-change policy world, he would probably choose the latter. Tetabo Nakara, a former environment minister who set the present contours of the reserve, told me: “If it’s clear that it won’t cost Kiribati anything, I have no doubt he will close it to save his reputation.”



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