Phoenix Islands Protected Area


The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, passionately referred to as the PIPA was first discovered in 1999 by the international scientists led by Dr. Gregory Stone of the New England Aquarium (NEAq) based in Boston Massachusetts, US.

In 2000, Stone and his team visited the Government of Kiribati to show results of their expedition in the Phoenix Islands and proposed for a total protection of the Phoenix group.

In 2002, the NEAq completed a DVD documentary titled Paradise Found capturing the pristine condition of the Phoenix islands and the biodiversity richness of its terrestrial and marine environment.  It is in this year that the name PIPA was born.

The Conservation International, CI in short, another US-based conservation foundation, joined efforts of the NEAq and the government of Kiribati to protect the PIPA.  CI came in with finance to allow NEAq to continue on exploring the unique richness and almost-pure condition of the PIPA.  In 2006, the PIPA was declared a protected area in the United Nations Convention of Biodiversity (UNCBD).

In 2008, the PIPA was protected under the Kiribati Environment Act, specifically the PIPA Regulations 2008 of the Environment Act 2007.  This regulation covers legal protection of the eight atoll islands in the PIPA with their territorial waters - 12 nautical miles surrounding each atoll except for the island of Kanton, where a tiny community of government caretakers is present - where 60 nautical miles is the allowable take zone.

In 2009, the PIPA Conservation Trust Act was passed in parliament and this opened up the way for international local and international supporters to provide donations towards cost of protecting the PIPA and providing compensations of revenues to be foregone in the event of a full closure and total ban of commercial fishing in the PIPA.  Revenues generated from the Fishing license sold to Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFNs) makes up more than 50% of the annual national budget.  The primary purpose of the PIPA Conservation Trust therefore is to compensate the expected loss in revenue that would be forfeited from closing off the PIPA.  The anticipated loss would be calculated annually using the size of the PIPA, which is nearly 12% of the total EEZ of the Republic of Kiribati, which is 3.5million square kilometers and against the annual tuna price used in the world market.

In year 2010, the PIPA was enlisted in the UNESCO's World Heritage (WH) to become the largest and deepest MPA in the WH to date.  PIPA has a size of 408,250 square kilometers, 4 times the size of Portugal, and almost same area of the state of California.  The many seamounts, 14 now identified, are amongst the deepest and tallest in the world and they hold secrets for the abundance and plethora of marine life being sustained rich welling up of nutrients that continuously feed the healthy food chain which supports the whole species of animals; the corals, the planktons, fishes like tuna, turtles, sharks, reef fishes, deep water fishes, manta rays, eels, shell fishes and bivalves, molluscs, crabs, birds, and so forth.

In the report of one Japanese scientific survey done in the Phoenix waters in 1951, the tuna larvae was found and the area was confirmed as spawning and breeding ground for tuna and other forms of marine species.  The latest scientific surveys carried out by the SEA (Sea Education Association), Woods Hole Institute, the NEAq and the government of Kiribati in July 2014, the tuna larvae was also found in abundance and now confirmed the earlier findings that the PIPA is really the spawning and breeding ground of tuna.  Also the June-July 2015 survey found the tuna larvae in abundance in the PIPA waters.  The continuous programme of monitoring the level of the tuna stock and the status of its larvae is part of efforts to gather and collect lessons on the scientifically based expectation that underlies the creations of large scale Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  Small scale MPAs have been confirmed scientifically as improving the stock of fish outside the MPAs and the spillover effect created from within the MPAs is now recognised as main cause of this sustained and improved stock of fish harvested by communities.  At present no large scale MPA, the size of PIPA, has ever been confirmed scientifically to hold this spillover benefit.  The PIPA therefore aims to be the first large scale MPA to engage in this exercise of providing the spillover effect and good to see progress in the exercise with the kind support of the PIPA offshore partners.    

On 1st of January, 2015, the whole of the PIPA EEZ (60 nautical miles of sea area surround  each of the eight atoll islands) was declared a closed and banned area from all forms of commercial fishing.  This is captured in the amended Regulation - Phoenix Islands Protected Area Regulations (Amendment) 2014.  Any local or DWFNs found illegally fishing in the PIPA will face heavy charges usually no less than US$1million.    


a.    There are a number of milestones that the PIPA has achieved since its formal inception in 2006.  These include the full political approval which has paved ways for the PIPA to quickly evolve and to become what is it now - the recognised MPA amongst those that were established many years before 2006.  Now it is respected as the largest and deepest MPA in the World Heritage and efforts are now underway to establish the PIPA as a global center for eco-tourism, marine and climate change research.  Due to its remoteness and the absence of people it is acclaimed as holding the most abundance of marine and terrestrial biodiversities in an atoll setting.  The PIPA since its inscription in the World Heritage is also declared as Natural Laboratory in the Wild - the first of its kind in the world.  In addition, the PIPA is also home of Nikumaroro Island which is also known as a graveyard of the legendary US aviator, Amelia Earhart, who in 1937, unsuccessfully crash-landed on the island due to the unexpected fuel shortage.  Most theories including the most recent findings of the US-based International Group of Historical Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) claimed that Nikumaroro in the PIPA holds the solution to one of the life-time historical mysteries.  PIPA therefore is rich not just in marine life but in histories of first inhabitants, the migration waves of travelers, whalers, phosphate miners, settlements in the 1980s and including the mysteries of Amelia Earhart. 

b     PIPA has allowed Kiribati to achieve the global requirement set by the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (UNCBD) to close off 10% of the member countries' EEZ by the year 2020.  Kiribati being a least developing country who has no land based resources such as minerals, forestry, agriculture, vegetables, livestock, and with a weak tourism industry is now seen through the PIPA as setting an example of genuine commitment for a global cause - by giving up a portion of its EEZ recognised as the most fishery-commercial active.  This portion - the PIPA was where commercial fishing by DWFNs before full closure of the PIPA in 1st January 2015 was mostly concentrated all year around.  The PIPA since its inception and all developments that culminate in its eventual full closure is a symbol of national stand and unity - to value the protection and management of the oceans which in Kiribati is very real insofar as ensuring its food security and economic development in the long run.  The total closure in fact goes far beyond the UNCBD requirement and Kiribati was globally praised for this bold stand.

c.    The PIPA Conservation Trust is also counted as one major milestone as it stands now as the first ever established Trust to support such a large-scale MPA.  There are a number of Trusts around the world that are already established but are limited to land conservation initiatives. The PIPA is the first MPA in the world with its own Conservation Trust.

d     Aside from protecting and preserving the natural assets of global significance, as qualifiers for PIPA's enlistment into the World Heritage, the PIPA is also scientifically acknowledged as Noah's Ark to species of fish and birds now listed by the International Union on the Conservation of Nature IUCN) as near-threatened, threatened and near-extinct.  The 6-gill Sharks and Napoleon Wrasse for instance are amongst the most threatened fish species in the world but are found so abundant in the PIPA.   

e     The PIPA is thus far the largest spawning and breeding ground and said to be supplying the PIPA larval stock of virtually all marines species into the neighbouring seas and far into global oceans. Due to its great isolation, PIPA occupies a unique position in the biogeography of the Pacific as a critical stepping stone habitat for migratory and pelagic/planktonic species and for ocean currents in the region and beyond. PIPA embraces a range of associated marine environments that display high levels of marine abundance as well as the full spectrum of age and size cohorts, increasingly rare in the tropics, and especially in the case of apex predator fish, sea turtles, tuna and sea birds.

f.     The PIPA is the initiative of the government and people of Kiribati which draws regional and international attention and consequently led to formations of the Pacific Oceanscape, which the Pacific Forum Leaders endorsed in their 2012 Forum Meeting in the Cook Islands, and the convening of the Big Ocean Network, a network of countries that have MPAs larger than 100,000sqkm (2010), and Sisterhood Arrangements between the PIPA, Papahanaumokuakea MPA (2010), the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (2012) - both of the US, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia (2011), where the three world-class large-scale MPAs works together under a mutual cooperation to share resources and lessons learnt.  Due to the unfettered political will over almost 20 years, the PIPA quickly rises to become the global leader and teacher in ocean management and conservation.


a     Patrol and Surveillance are the top hurdles that the government of Kiribati tries to cope with.  With the size as big as Japan, Patrolling it is understandably a huge challenge especially when Kiribati has only one Patrol Boat donated by the government of Australia. The cost of one patrol run into the PIPA is more than US$200,000 and Kiribati with its small and weak economy can only afford one run per year.  This physical run of a boat is further enhanced by the satellite remote Vessel Monitoring System managed by the Pacific Fisheries Forum Agency (FFA).  All vessels licensed to fish in our EEZ are bound by Law to abide to strict conditions and regulations and are also required to install the VMS system to make the FFA and government of Kiribati to be able to track their movements 24 hours during the whole duration of the licensing period.  Surveillance was further supported by other regional programmes where the governments of New Zealand, Australia, France and US on their own scheduled patrol runs in their island territories or passing by the Kiribati EEZ, they kindly offered patrols in Kiribati's 3.5million including the PIPA EEZ.

       In early 2015, the PIPA Trust signed receipt of US$1million donation of the Ted Waitt Foundation and Oceans 5 with special focus on surveillance and protection of the PIPA.  This US$1million donation is committed to come forth every year from same donors for the period of 5 years and for same purpose.  In 2016, patrol runs will step up to 10 while in 2017, the PIPA will have its own patrol boat to be based in Kanton - hub for the PIPA and with fuel and operational costs to be borne by the same donors.  Beyond the donation period in 2020, the PIPA Conservation Trust with its investments is expected to be in a position to support all management and enforcement works for the PIPA.  So the challenge of patrol in the PIPA is one that is real but in spite of the available funding, the government of Kiribati through the PIPA Implementation Office (PIO) remains baffled with the problem of geographical distance between Tarawa the capital where the PIO is and Kanton island in the PIPA, some 1,750km away. This factor has huge costs far beyond the annual budget provision - cost of ship charter to move the required number of fuel tanks - to enable the planned stepped-up patrol runs.

b     The second and major challenge is the climate change particularly with its devastating effects of global warming. The blessing in disguise is that the PIPA becomes an ideal global centre for studying effects of climate change on the marine life especially the corals.  The geographical location of the PIPA in a remotest part of the Pacific makes it the best site to measure effects and gather baseline data of climate change in the absence of human activities.  In 2002, NEAq scientists discovered 90% of mortality to the coral life in the PIPA making it the worst ever devastation of corals in the history of the PIPA.  In 2009 the follow up studies was surprised to see the fast recovery rate of the corals and scientists attributed this to the absence of human interference and favourable geographical location of the PIPA.  In 2012 and September 2015, groups of international scientists confirmed in different times that PIPA corals have a super high resilience with its corals springing back to life within a short period of time.  Climate Change is a global problem affecting the entire planet and PIPA has a fair share of the problem.  This is also the problem that the government of Kiribati cannot face on its own as she watches bleaching corals and eroding shores to its 33 atoll islands.

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PIPA has enjoyed extensive media coverage from a wide variety of sources. Here are links to some of the articles:

Science Magazine March 2016 Ending Hide and Seek at Sea

National Geographic Jan 2011 "Phoenix Rising"

New England Aquarium Winter 2010 Blue Magazine Featuring PIPA

Science News Feb 2009 "The presidents of two island nations draft escape plans, anticipating sea level rise"

Cosmos Magazine June 2008 "World's Largest Marine Park: Size of California"

Smithsonian Magazine Sept 2008 "Our Imperiled Oceans: Victory at Sea"

Harvard Gazette Sept 2008 "Island Nation President Plans for Extinction"

ABC News Oct 2008 "Conservation Talks Highlight Need to Protect Island Environments"

Living on Earth Oct 2008 feature on the Phoenix Islands Protected Area

ABC News April 2007 "Kiribati's President: 'Our Lives Are At Stake'

National Geographic Feb 2004 "Phoenix Islands"

PIPA: Quick Facts

  • The Phoenix Islands reefs are what a reef might have looked like a thousand years ago.
  • These islands and surrounding waters cover 408,250 km2 and represent one of Earth's last intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems.
  • PIPA also protects important seabird nesting grounds, along with rare traditional plants that have cultural and medicinal values in Kiribati but are now threatened on more populated islands.