Because that is where all the ocean is…

I recently listened to a fascinating lecture entitled “Saving the oceans one island at a time”. The lecturer was Dr. Greg Stone, an oceanographer who has spent his career studying marine ecologies and organizing conservation efforts to sustain ocean biodiversity. His presentation consisted of a telling story about the establishment of what is now the second largest marine protected area (MPA), but it got me thinking on the way we approach our own favorite, if even local, coastal and freshwater fisheries.

One of Stone’s most notable studies involves an obscure chain of atolls in the mid-Atlantic, the Phoenix Islands, which is a part of the poverty-stricken nation of Kiribati (which I admit, I’d never even heard of before today). On his first trip there, he was blown away by the prolific waters and marine life that he was able to witness – numerous and sizable fish populations, overly active spawning grounds, and expansive coral gardens – unlike most others on this entire planet. In fact, when asked why he went all the way to the Phoenix Islands to study the ocean (apparently it takes at least 5 days to get there from anywhere), he said it was like the bank robber claims to have robbed the bank because that is where all the money is; Dr. Stone went to the Phoenix Islands “because that is where all the ocean is“.


Included in Stone’s lecture was a striking chart that presented a comparison of protected land area (orange) to protected marine areas (blue) over recent time; I found a similar chart here.

Anyway, as Stone continued to study the area and share his findings with the local government, he was able to learn that one of Kiribati’s few sources of income was selling fishing rights to other countries (Kiribati couldn’t fish those waters itself because it lacked the necessary gear and vessels to get there and commercially fish). With a captive audience (due to being the first one EVER to present any scientific findings to the Kiribati officials), he came up with a suggestion to preserve the islands’ economic value to Kiribati while simultaneously conserving the ecological treasures inhabiting those waters. They developed a “reverse fishing license” by which Kiribati was paid to keep the marine life intact and the commercial fishing away. This mechanism became feasible via an endowment which annually pays Kiribati the determined value of the lost fishing license sales they would have received from the other countries.

As I listened to the lecture I couldn’t help but think about even the more local fisheries that we call our favorites and rely on for recreation and even industry. While this story is a remarkable example (worthy of much global recognition from the likes of National Geographic and more) of affected change, I think there are opportunities to apply similar principles all around us. And the right answer isn’t always a call for something drastic, but perhaps a simple partnership that gets the ball rolling in the right direction. For example, take the efforts of the guides and lodge owners in Belize who got the momentum going for establishing catch and release status for the country’s most valuable fish species (read more at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust website). There can be power in numbers, especially considering the numbers that share in the value of our favorite resources.

Stone concluded with 5 conditions that enabled success of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) initiative, which I thought all can have an equivalent influence on even the smallest grassroots efforts:

1. Exploration & Science

2. Trust & Collaboration

3. Innovative Communication

4. Working Within Market Forces

5. Flexibility

I know the concept of taking small steps forward is nothing new, nor is promoting conservation through scientific research. But I did think the PIPA story was a fresh and compelling example of the power of collaboration, and support for the influence that business and industry can, likewise, have on the markets and resources to which it is connected. Like our stated mission, its a full circle from ecology to economy and back…even if only one island at a time.

To see the full lecture, click here.

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