If 16 determined Pacific island nations succeed in protecting a swath of Pacific Ocean larger than the surface of the moon, their Oceanscape initiative might turn out to be one of modern history’s most impressive environmental accomplishments.
In 2010, a conservation agreement between the nations that make up the Pacific Islands Forum — including Australia, New Zealand, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea — sent an unequivocal message to the world: The people of the Pacific Islands would no longer be silent while their shorelines and fisheries disappeared. Three years after creating Pacific Oceanscape, the initial commitment has been strengthened by the addition of two new marine-protected areas.
Although most of the nations are ranked among the smallest in the world in terms of landmass, population and economy, each nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone is a vast expanse of ecologically significant ocean. Collectively, Oceanscape represents about 10 percent of the world’s oceans.
“We are large ocean states,” says Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, who first proposed Oceanscape to the region in 2009, shortly after creating the Phoenix Island Protected Area, a no-take zone the size of California that encompasses a pristine coral archipelago and tuna-spawning grounds. At the time, it was the largest marine-protected area in the world.
Today, PIF’s Cook Islands’ 600,000-square-mile reserve has that distinction, though New Caledonia is about to take over bragging rights with its pledge to add 870,000 square miles of ocean that’s adjacent to the famed Coral Sea.
The initiative aims to improve the management of the region’s tuna stock — the largest and healthiest in the world — and to protect severely depleted pelagic species. Many shark populations in the region have been reduced to 10 percent or less of their original abundance “thanks to the insatiable demand for shark-fin soup,” according to the environmental nonprofit Conservation International.
Conservationists hope Oceanscape’s marine-protected areas will serve as life rafts to endangered marine species. There are already encouraging signs of recovery for humpback whales, says CI, in part due to the more than 4.6 million square miles of whale sanctuaries set aside in many of the reserves.
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