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To protect oceans, island nation of Kiribati bans commercial fishing

July 27, 2014 at 12:43 PM EDT
The president of the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati announced a ban on commercial fishing in the waters surrounding his country in order to protect the marine life that lives along the coral reefs that ring his country’s islands, most importantly tuna.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The U.S. State Department recently convened its first oceans conference, bringing scientists and political leaders from around the world to address the many threats to the world’s oceans, including pollution, climate change, and overfishing.

SECRETARY KERRY: “The protection of our oceans is a vital international security issue.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Secretary of State John Kerry said that protecting the oceans was an obvious concern both for the U.S., and for all nations.

SECRETARY KERRY: “Protecting our ocean is also a great necessity for global food security … The connection between a healthy ocean and life itself for every single person on earth cannot be overstated.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Kerry then introduced President Anote Tong, of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, a man Kerry called “one of the world’s greatest advocates for the world’s oceans.”

Tong’s country is nearly 7,000 miles away — far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You may have heard of Kiribati because its approximately 100,00 residents are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise caused by climate change. In fact, Kiribati recently purchased land in Fiji as a refuge for its people in anticipation of when rising seas may make it too dangerous to continue living there.

But President Tong’s most recent concern has been overfishing. He’s working with the environmental group Conservation International to protect the marine life that lives along the rich coral reefs that ring his country’s islands. The area is home to a huge array of species, most importantly tuna.

Tong went to that State Department conference to announce that in order to protect those tuna, he was banning commercial fishing in what’s called the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. It’s over 150,000 square miles of Kiribati’s territorial waters — an area roughly the size of California.

Some critics claim Kiribati has promised to close these waters before, but only closed a small portion, but President Tong says, soon, the entire area will be protected.

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: “Kiribati has taken the decision to fully close all commercial fishing activities within the Phoenix Islands Protected Area with the effect from the first of January 2015.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Because of overfishing, many of the worlds tuna stocks are depleted or in jeopardy. The tuna that come from the Central Pacific are now one of the last remaining relatively healthy stocks of this lucrative, crucial fish.

Tuna are known as a ‘pelagic’ species – which means they migrate huge distances across the Pacific during their lifespan. So while Kiribati’s closure protects just one small part of the tuna habitat, it’s considered an important – if symbolic – step in protecting the entire fishery.

I talked with President Tong the day before he announced the closure.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Tong, why did you decide that this was the right time to close these fishing grounds?

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: For far too often in the past, we stand by and watch what goes on. And we have theories, we postulate theories as to how to deal with it, but I think we want to do more than that. I think it’s the same case in terms of climate change. I think we know what’s wrong, we believe we know what should be done, but we continue not to do it. We continue to wait for the next country to do it.

And definitely the case is that many Americans eat tuna, either sashimi or canned, but what we see on the table, what we see around our daily lives, we don’t always associate it with something else beyond. But the reality is that this has to come from somewhere. And at the moment the most viable tuna fishing grounds that remain viable are those in the Western and Central Pacific, in our waters. And so leadership has got to be taken.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How will this be enforced though? As you know, there are many protected marine fisheries around the world where illegal fishing is still rampant. So how will Kiribati, with really no navy and few resources be able to protect this protected area?

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: We do have measures in place. We do have agreements in place where we have agreed to look after each other’s exclusive zone, particularly for illegal activities. We also have arrangements with our developed partners including the United States, whereby the U.S. Coast Guard vessels go into our waters and they do provide surveillance and they have in the past actually caught and we have prosecuted illegal fishing vessels.

But I believe that it’s got to be done as a collaborative effort. We cannot do it alone; we should not have to do it alone, because we are doing this for the rest of humanity as a food security issue, global food security issue. And so our partners, our neighbors should be willing, if they are able, to contribute.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As you know, tuna spend — they cross an enormous amount of the Pacific Ocean, and so while you may be able to protect them in the short time when they are in your waters, isn’t there a concern that they’re going to eventually migrate somewhere else and might be unprotected and snatched up once they’ve left your neighborhood?

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: There’s no doubt that this is, the tuna are renowned for being a ‘pelagic’ species. That’s absolutely correct. But at least somewhere where they know that, we’ll we know that they will be able to find refuge. I hope the tuna learn that in time, but I think it’s better than doing nothing at all.

And hopefully by doing this, other neighboring countries will do the same and so on. Hopefully, in time, we will have something much more effective to ensure that the tuna fisheries in our part of the world doesn’t suffer the same fate as other tuna, fisheries in different parts of the world in the Atlantic, the salmon, the cod and whatever, the bluefin in the Atlantic, that’s all gone. We don’t want to repeat the same experience.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You’ve obviously spent a great deal of your time trying to draw the world’s attention to climate change and to sea-level rise and to the very real threat to your nation. Is there a concern that, as sea levels continue to rise and the territorial size of your own country is threatened, that it becomes harder and harder to protect the fisheries around them?

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: Well, a lot of things are going to need protecting, and I think the first animals that would need protecting are our people, okay? Secondly, of course the question that arises as to what happens to our exclusive economic zone. Does it disappear with the submergence of our islands? We believe not. I’ve looked and I’ve been seeking advice on this, and there’s no legal precedent. In other words —

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: If a nation goes under the water, does it still have jurisdiction around it?

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: Yes. Definitely. We believe that it is ours, it remains ours. Whether our islands go underwater or not. But of course let me make the point that we are committed to ensuring that whatever happens, whatever the sea level rise might be, we will build them up so that to ensure that our nation continues to exist, even if only a small piece of it. Because it’s symbolic. It’s a statement to everybody not to allow things like that to happen.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Anote Tong of Kiribati, thank you very much.

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: You’re very welcome and thank you for giving me this opportunity to comment on this very significant challenge.