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There are few places more remote than the Line Islands, the most easterly of the three island archipelago groups of Kiribati, which lies about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
With a population of 101,000 — most of whom live in and around the capital Tarawa in the westernmost group, the Gilbert Islands — and a land area of only 811 square kilometers (313 square miles), Kiribati has long been regarded as a tiny and globally insignificant economy. In fact, Kiribati is a large ocean state that is setting a powerful precedent for other island nations.
The country’s marine area, or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is a whopping 3.4 million square kilometers (more than 1.3 million square miles) — larger than India and 4,244 times the size of Kiribati’s land area. Under the leadership of President Anote Tong, it has protected over 12 percent of its EEZ within the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).
Travelling in a large, comfortable ocean liner makes voyaging through the Line Islands as easy as it gets, but the distances are still immense, with nothing but open ocean for day after day. How much harder must it be to travel between islands in the few small, aging vessels that ply these waters? And how difficult must it be to achieve good conservation management in these remote areas on a shoestring budget?
Building on the success of PIPA, CI’s Pacific Islands Program is looking to expand its conservation support in Kiribati; we have already supported the development of an invasive species management plan for the Line Islands. This is my chance to see firsthand the realities of being able to deliver conservation results for these remote islands.
Our first stop is Caroline Island (also known as Millennium Atoll), where we anchor for the morning. I drop into the water in my snorkelling gear, and it takes my breath away. Clear blue water, with great visibility, over 95 percent coral cover, schools of large and small reef fish, and everywhere cute wee sharks of four different species. The scuba divers report that things are even more impressive deeper under the surface.
I haven’t seen a reef or abundance of marine biodiversity like this in 40 years, and I wonder how many reefs are left on the planet in such good shape. I’ve read that the reefs of the Southern Line Islands are amongst the top 1 percent in the world, and I can easily believe it.
In the afternoon, we explore the lagoon, and during a brief snorkel, I see a giant Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). For me, it is the fish of a lifetime. Let’s hope this one eludes the live fish trade; in Hong Kong a fish like this would be worth over US$ 500.
We land on the same spot where the Spanish navigator Quiros landed in 1605, and I wonder how much the reef has changed since then. One thing that has changed is the amount of rubbish — plastic drink bottles, fishing debris and buoys, a hard hat and even a chest freezer are strewn all along a short stretch of beach. There is no escape from the debris of “progress” and economic growth.
Two days later, we arrive at Kiritimati Island. With 5,000 residents, this is the largest human settlement within a thousand-kilometer radius, and the site of 30 nuclear weapons tests by the U.K. and the U.S. between 1957-1962. Back then, little consideration was afforded to the inhabitants and the biodiversity of the island, and although military activity here has ceased, the inhabitants of Kiritimati Island are still largely unknown to the world. Ours is the first passenger vessel to visit all year.
We are taken by four cheery members of the Wildlife Conservation Unit to Motu Tapu, a wildlife reserve that is still rat-free and is inhabited by tens of thousands of seabirds from 18 different species. As one of the naturalists aboard remarks, this is a real seabird city, and like any city it is full of noise, hustle and bustle, and smells!
We spend two enchanting hours there before moving on to Cook Island, another seabird reserve with even more birds. I have never seen anything remotely like this in the tropics, and marvel again that Kiribati has had the commitment and foresight to preserve these global jewels for us all.
Soon we are underway on the four-day slog through 5-meter (16-foot) swells to Honolulu, during which I ponder how CI can better support Kiribati in its self-appointed role as guardian of some of the most remarkable biodiversity I have ever seen. I am deeply grateful for the efforts of my CI colleagues for their tireless efforts in assisting President Tong of Kiribati in establishing the Pacific Oceanscape, and I vow to redouble my efforts to make this initiative’s ambitious visions a reality.
Michael Donoghue is the executive director of CI’s Pacific Islands Program.