Small Islands, Giant Oceans: Q&A with President Tong of the Republic of Kiribati

This morning at the “Our Ocean” Conference, currently being hosted by the U.S. State Department, President Anote Tong of Kiribati announced that starting next year, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) will be completely closed to commercial fishing — a monumental development that aims to regenerate a species-rich area of ocean the size of California. President Tong recently sat down with us to discuss this announcement; here’s an excerpt from the interview.  

President Anote Tong of Kiribati

President Anote Tong of the Republic of Kiribati. (© Conservation International/photo by Toby de Jong)

Q: What will happen with the Phoenix Islands Protected Area on January 1, 2015?

A: At the beginning of next year, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area — over 400,000 square kilometers [154,000 square miles] — will be closed to all commercial fishing activity.

Q: Why did the government of Kiribati decide to increase the percent of the PIPA that is closed to commercial fishing?

A: We have always intended to close off the whole of the PIPA … what we needed was time to put it into place. We have a number of partners that fish in our waters; the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Taiwanese, the Spanish, even the United States has quite a number of fishing vessels operating there. What we needed, and what they needed, was time to restructure and to reorganize their activities and accept the reality that the PIPA would no longer be available for them to fish in.

Q: How does the PIPA relate to food security?

A: Our purpose is to contribute to sustainability of fish resources in the Pacific. The Pacific tuna fisheries are among the last remaining viable tuna fisheries in the oceans. Science tells us that the PIPA is one of the tuna spawning grounds. In closing it off, we hope it will maintain the sustainability of the resource in terms of protecting the stocks while they’re spawning and also provide a sort of a camp — somewhere where the fish can find shelter and not be subjected to the heavy fishing pressure that is always going on in our part of the world.

We don’t overexploit. I think the danger in trying to manage the resources for which we are responsible is we don’t always have the precise data in order to be able to measure what we should be taking out, what the maximum sustainable yield should be. That is also quite uncertain, because there’s a lot of illegal fishing activity, a lot of unreported and unregulated fishing. Part of the purpose in putting aside the PIPA is that we err on the side of caution rather than err on the side of overfishing.

reef in Phoenix Islands Protected Area, Kiribati

Coral reef in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)

Q: Was it a difficult decision to create the PIPA, given that so much of Kiribati’s revenue comes from fishing?

A: The revenue from fish access licensing fees is our biggest source of revenue. And you’re quite right in saying that it’s not always been very easy to do this. We did encounter some opposition domestically because there was a perceived reduction in revenue that we cannot afford as a small developing island country. But in doing so I think there has come recognition that even if there was some loss of revenue, the resource is not lost but actually kept in reserve.

Q: Can you talk about CI’s role in the development of the PIPA? 

A: Putting this arrangement into place involves setting up a PIPA trust fund, to which partners, foundations, private organizations and even governments can make contributions. Conservation International has made a contribution of US$ 2.5 million into this trust fund, and my national government has matched that contribution.

We have enacted legislation to ensure that the trust fund remains intact — it’s never to be touched. And so from the returns on the trust fund, the administration of the PIPA will be financed, and the loss of revenue to the government will be paid from that.

Q: You’ve participated in a number of meetings like the “Our Ocean” Conference. Do you think the needle is moving in the right direction?

A: Yes, I have been involved in this crusade, this campaign for ocean conservation and climate change action, for quite some time. What I am seeing is very inspiring.

I recall my experience in 2009 at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen. I came away from that conference very disappointed because there was nothing significant agreed. There was the Copenhagen Accord, but it fell very short of what expectations were.

Absolutely there has been very significant progress. The most recent developments within the United States are very encouraging. I recall when the United States did not participate in any significant way on the issue of climate change. Now the United States as a government is coming out very strongly on trying to address climate change. As a leader in virtually all aspects of politics, economics, and also carbon emissions, the participation of the United States, I believe, will galvanize other countries to engage.

So yes, I have seen some progress — but it’s been a little late. For countries like ours it’s too late, because the science says the momentum of what’s already in the atmosphere, of what is already happening, will still ensure that our islands will be submerged within the century.

Q: How have you seen climate change affect your country?

A: Climate change is perhaps the most significant challenge facing us at the moment. Kiribati is comprised of low-lying atoll islands, barely 2 meters [6.6 feet] above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that the sea level rise as a consequence of global warming will be around 1 meter [3.3 feet] within the century.

It’s a bad story for us. It means that many of our islands will be underwater by the end of the century. Undoubtedly. And so this is why it’s important for us. This is why we must continue to advocate and get collective action on this.

President Tong of Kiribati with his grandchildren

President Tong fishing with his grandchildren in Kiribati. (© Conservation International/photo by Peter Stonier)

Q: And this will entail a certain amount of relocation for the people of Kiribati?

A: Yes, unless we do something about raising the level of the islands, they will be underwater. Yes, if they are going underwater, our people will have to relocate. But what is important is as a government, as a people, we have to do things to ensure that our people have a future.

I recall being very fearful of being asked “What have you planned for us?” by my people, because at the time I didn’t have a credible response. But over time, we have come up with a number of options, which include building up the islands. Not all of them, because we won’t have the resources to do that, but we must never allow the nation of Kiribati to go. Even if we are able to build up one or two islands, at least our homeland will still be there, if not all of it.

Of course, there will be a considerable reduction in the landmass, so the current population will never be able to live on the islands that would be built up. And certainly they would have to be relocated.

And so as part of our strategy in the relocation, we are already in the process of skilling our people, so that if and when they do relocate, they will do so as skilled people, people who go to whatever country they chose to go as people with dignity — employable, not second-class citizens.

Q: Why should the rest of the world care?

A: Kiribati will be underwater within the century, given the projections. We have always referred to ourselves as being on the front line of this climate change challenge. But what I can guarantee is that there will be other front line countries. Many of the large cities, including New York, will be affected because a rise in sea level of 1 meter or a little above will affect a lot of the areas that are very heavily populated within the United States.

Q: If you could leave the audience at the “Our Ocean” Conference with one message what would it be?

A: I will be participating in the “Our Oceans” Conference being hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. I’m very happy to be delivering a statement, and I think it’s important as part of the strategy to address the issues of climate change. We must understand that we have to look after the oceans. We have to look after this planet, because it is the only one we have.

President Anote Tong is the president of the Republic of Kiribati. Learn more about how the establishment of the PIPA has led to the creation of the world’s largest network of marine protected areas: the Pacific Oceanscape

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