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Most of the world’s oceans are in serious decline. But the corals and marine life in the waters around The Phoenix Islands are thriving. How this previously little-known, remote wilderness in the Pacific became one of the highest profile international conservation priorities.
- Gregory Stone executive vice president and chief ocean scientist at Conservation International and senior vice president at the New England Aquarium.
Photo Gallery: The Last Coral Wilderness
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth” by Gregory Stone. Copyright 2012 by Gregory Stone. Reprinted here by permission of University Of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The world's oceans are suffering, corals are dying off, marine life is threatened. But the waters off of Phoenix Islands in the south Pacific offer a view of what a healthy coral ecosystem might have looked like thousands of years ago.
MS. DIANE REHMIn 2008, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area was established, it's the world's largest and deepest UNESCO world heritage site. A new book titled, "Underwater Eden" tells the behind the scenes story of saving the last coral wilderness on earth. Co-editor, Gregory Stone, joins me in the studio. He's chief ocean scientist of Conservation International and senior vice-president of exploration and conservation at the New England Aquarium.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us, dive into the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter and do take a look at the gorgeous photographs on our website, at drshow.org. Good morning to you, Gregory. Thanks for joining us.
MR. GREGORY STONEGood morning, Diane, and thank you so much for having me here.
REHMWell, I want to apologize to you up front for this voice of mine, but we'll get through it. I'm looking at a globe and I want you to describe exactly where the Phoenix Islands are.
STONEAbsolutely. The easiest way to think about it is if you look at the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Ocean is huge, it's actually the largest feature on the Earth, by the way. If you put the Atlantic and Indian Oceans together they're still smaller than the Pacific so if anybody's coming in from outer space they're going to look at the Pacific Ocean first.
STONENow, if you make, like, a crosshairs on the Pacific with the Equator being your horizontal crosshair and the very middle of the Pacific being the longitudinal one, the Phoenix Islands are right in the middle on the Equator about halfway between Hawaii and Fuji.
REHMSo when were they first discovered?
STONEWell, they were first discovered by the ancient Polynesian and Micronesian travelers who traversed the Pacific in canoes thousands of years ago, they were quite remarkable. And they stopped there, we can see evidence of short colonizations, but they never stayed there. It was, just seemed to be a place they explored, checked out and went on. So they've remained uninhabited for most of history.
STONEWesterners first ran across them in the 1800s during the whaling days. All the whaling ships would go to the central Pacific to catch sperm whales back before petroleum products they had to use, catch whales for oil. And the whaling ships came through and began to find them and then other Westerners through the 1800s and early 1900s found them.
REHMAnd what was this 1856 act that the U.S. Congress passed, the Guano Islands Act?
STONEYes, it was, back then Guano, which is basically bird droppings was, extremely rich in certain chemicals, nitrate to begin with. Which was good for fertilizers, also there was some gunpowder manufacturing from it and these islands which had these oceanic bird populations which lived on them for thousands and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years, had built up all these bird droppings.
STONESo this was like, it's a valley, they were like mining, they were actually mining the bird droppings. And the United States government decided to say that any island that contained bird droppings in the south Pacific could become part of the United States upon beginning the mining operation, which was total disregard for the local populations of the Polynesians and Micronesians and Melanesians that lived there, crazy act.
REHMAnd then you had the Canton Islands used as kind of a stopover for air flights?
STONEYes, yes, if you, if you remember the Indian Jones movie, remember where he puts his hat on and gets on the airplane and starts to travel around the world?
STONEWell, that was how it worked back in the 30's and if you wanted to go from Australia to the West Coast of the United States, what you did is you got on a sea plane and you took off from Sydney and then you'd land in Auckland Harbor, spend the night. Then you'd take off again and you'd land in Fuji, in a harbor, spend the night, then you'd land again and stop at Canton, in the Phoenix Islands, spend the night.
STONEThen you go to Honolulu and finally you'd get to the West Coast. So it was kind of, I would like to have done it because you get to stay at this hotel every night at these places and land in sea, very romantic. So the Phoenix Islands had a brief history of being part of this trans-Pacific route. But then when airplanes became better equipped and whatnot they didn't have to make those stopovers.
REHMBut if you took a boat from Fuji to these islands, how long would it take?
STONEIt takes a good four days even up to five days. They're very remote, yes, long slog across the ocean, big waves and whatnot.
REHMSo most people have never even heard of the Phoenix Islands?
STONENo, they haven't. The Phoenix Islands sort of lost to history, if you will. They had brief moments where, as I said, Polynesians found them thousands of years ago and kind of left them. Then the whalers found them and left them and then there was a brief period of this airline exploration but everybody kind of forgot about them until recently.
REHMUntil 1999 and the search for Amelia Earhart.
STONEThat's correct, that's correct. There is a theory that she crash landed on one of the Phoenix Islands and lived there for several months with Fred Noonan, who was her navigator. And a series of expeditions began to go there looking for her in 1999.
REHMAnd somebody found a portion of one wheel?
STONEWell, that was actually me. There's a lot of artifacts that have been found that could link back to her, none have been conclusive. They range from shoes to cosmetic products to navigation boxes. And then one day I was in the lagoon at Nikumaroro, which is one of the Phoenix Islands, doing some surveys and I found this wheel sort of embedded in the coral and I went over and I tried to pick it up and I couldn't so obviously it had been there a long time because it was sort of grown in.
STONEI didn't understand it's significance until I left and when I got back I realized that I should've taken a picture, I should've documented it because it turned out that it could've been a wheel from her aircraft if she landed there.
REHMBut what had happened to it in the meantime?
STONEWell, there's a group called TIEGAR (sp?), you can go to their website and see their work. Upon my report, they flew me to an aircraft museum to look at an Electra. It was like two or three serial numbers off of Amelia's and they said, "Could this have been the wheel?" And I looked at the wheel and I said, "Well, maybe, you know, it was (unintelligible) ."
REHMYes, you can't tell.
STONEYou can't tell just looking at it through the water. So they launched an expedition to find it and they called me up from the islands on a satellite phone and said, "Okay, we're where you told us and there's nothing." And I said, "Well, there was, it was a big typhoon season so the sands had shifted and now it's gone again." So these mysteries continue.
REHMSo tell me about the opportunities you see there for conservationists and scientists.
STONEYes, yes. Well, I'd like to start with the value of the oceans, Diane. I mean, you know, the oceans are what make the Earth a nice place to live. I'm reminded of Buckminster Fuller who coined that metaphor "spaceship Earth." Do you remember that, back in the 1960s? He saw the globe hanging in space and he realized, you know, that we're all there.
STONEAnd he was actually really correct. You know, we're travelling currently at 67,000 miles an hour around the sun, okay. And everything we've ever had and everything we ever will have is on this Earth. This is everything that we're going to have live, in order to live. And it turns out that the oceans are the life support system of our spaceship.
STONENow, think about it, if you woke up one morning and realized you were on a spaceship, right, and no chance of resupply, what would you do? First thing you'd do, is you'd look around and say, "What do I got? How long is it going to last and how do I take care of it?" So the biggest thing we have are the oceans, they provide most of the oxygen, they moderate our climate, they actually create the atmosphere that we're breathing right, that you and I are breathing.
STONEThey supply food for one out of every four people and they're in serious decline, have been for the last 50 years. So our spaceship suffering, the life support system is suffering and the oceans are the key to it. So that's what's important about initiatives like the Phoenix Islands and there's others going on around the world, is that we begin to protect, we begin to steward this most valuable asset.
REHMBut it's fascinating to me that despite its extraordinary remoteness you have found change caused by humans.
STONEYes, you know you're totally right and it surprised me as well. When I first went to the Phoenix Islands 12 years ago I, you know, for me it was a marine biologist's dream. It was a place that had never been surveyed, biologically, never really been explored underwater and it was uninhabited. First time I fell back into the water with my scuba gear on, my life changed.
STONEI mean, I saw what the oceans were probably like, you know, a thousand years ago. I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries, just so you know. You know, with my mask and flippers on, on the living room floor. Yes, I was so totally into the ocean and I started diving. I've dived, you know, my whole career but it wasn't until then that I really saw what our oceans are supposed to be like.
STONEFull of sharks, full of fish and amazing coral and I started going back to this place every few years to do the surveys. Then we went back one year and we found massive coral death from global warming. The oceans had heated up from the greenhouse gas effect, you know, CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and that heating had caused a reaction in the central Pacific, which bleached the Phoenix Islands corals.
STONENow, bleached is a term we use in science which turns the corals white. Corals get color from something called, there are plants that live in the coral tissue and when it gets too warm that material dies and they turn white, it's called bleaching.
REHMThe other thing you noticed was an extraordinary depletion of sharks. We'll talk more about that when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Gregory Stone is with me. He's co-editor of a new book titled, "Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness On Earth." And we're talking about the series of islands in the South Pacific. It's called the Republic of Kiribati, explain that.
STONEYes. It's actually the Republic of Kiribati. I know it's...
REHMKiribati, even though it's pronounced T-I.
STONEEven though it's spelled T-I, it's confusing.
STONEIt's understandable that you'd say that. It's the Republic of Kiribati and they are a country, a fully fledged democratic wonderful country in Micronesia. And they are a giant, what I call a giant ocean state. They have 33 islands that's spread across the Central Pacific, including the Phoenix Islands. Over to the west, you probably will be familiar with the Gilbert Islands, which is part of their group, Tarawa, the famous World War II battle site is there. And to the east is Line Islands.
STONEBut around every island and around every coastline in the world, countries control 200 miles of ocean. That's how the International Law of the Sea works.
STONESo the amount of ocean territory covered by this country with not a very big population is only about 100,000 people is about two-thirds of the continental United States. So they are what I call a giant ocean state, a very interesting place.
REHMNow, just before the break, you were talking about the bleaching of the coral and I raised with you the number of sharks disappearing from those waters.
STONEWell, there's two issues there. One is, I mentioned, global warming which is as the oceans heat up, it kills corals. And we saw massive mortality, death of corals back in 2003. But here's the great news, the corals have recovered in a roaring fashion. And what we learned from this, something very important about the ocean is that it's resilient. If we take care of it, we protected -- the government of Kiribati protected the Phoenix Islands at that time.
STONESo they made sure there were no other threats to the ocean, there were no coastal development, there wasn't overfishing. All -- there weren't things running into the ocean. They took away all the other threats so that -- because of the heating that killed the corals, the corals were able to recover. They came back. The oceans are resilient. And the way to think about it is, if you're a person and you've got six or seven serious diseases, you're probably going to die.
STONEBut if you've got one, you can deal with it. And it's the same thing with the ocean. If we remove all threats, it can deal with one as in global warming. Now sharks is a separate issue. The first time I went there, there had never been, to anyone's knowledge, shark fishing. And as I went in the water, I would see two or three hundred sharks. I mean, this is just an amazing experience.
STONEAnd then when I went back, we noticed that several of the islands, the shark populations were greatly diminished. And we talked to the government of Kiribati about this and they said, oh, yeah, you know, they had issued a permit for someone to go catch sharks and they had no idea of what the impact was going to be. And once we told them what the impact had been, they totally closed down fishing in the islands because they did not realize that by issuing this permit for a boat to go and take sharks that it would have such a dramatic impact.
REHMAm I correct in recalling that these nets that were catching the sharks were as much as 80 miles long?
STONEThey used to be. There was a time when drift nets had tremendous lengths like that, but there was an international agreement that stopped most of that. So these -- the fishing in the Phoenix Islands was done by very small nets and very short fishing lines. But again, they've totally closed down fishing there now as part of the protection scheme.
REHMAnd they were fishing for these sharks because of shark fins.
STONEYeah. They -- it's a terrible technique where they catch the shark, they cut the fins off, very often they'll throw the shark back in the water, sometimes alive because the shark fins are extremely valuable for making soup in Asia.
REHMBut the shark dies.
STONEThe shark dies, but the boat wants to fill up on fins because they're so much valuable than the shark meat. It's terrible practice. It's being banned in many parts of the world, but it needs to be banned in many more parts of the world. We just have to take care of sharks. They're one of the really important animals in the ocean.
REHMHow many other species of fish are in the waters around these islands?
STONEWe've counted -- we've documented over 500 species of fish in this area. And we've discovered several new species. It's just a -- it's like a rainforest underwater. There are so many animals and plants there.
REHMSome gorgeous species, one that looks like tree bark but it's in varied colors.
STONEYeah. That's probably a coral you're looking at. Let me see if I can find it in the book. It's like kaleidoscope of colors when you go underwater.
STONEAnd you find just amazing creatures everywhere.
REHMThis -- no, it's the nudibranch.
STONEOh, the nudibranch. Okay. Yeah, they're one of my favorites. They're actually a snail without a shell is what they are.
STONEYes, yes. They're in the same -- they're the same type of animal as a snail. And you can see, you see they got the little horn sticking out at the top of their head.
REHMI do see.
STONEWell, they just have evolved in the ocean, these species. They don't require a shell because they've got stinging tentacles on their backs, right?
REHMAre they found anywhere else?
STONEYeah. Nudibranchs are found throughout the world, mostly in warm water and they've -- again, they've evolved. Te shell, of course, keeps the snail from getting eaten, right? So this variety of snail has the stinging tentacles to keep itself from getting eaten.
REHMOkay. Now you have to identify that, I'm opening his book at the center. It looks as though this creature, which is almost translucent has colors purple and red. It's gorgeous. What is this?
STONEWhat you're looking at there is a little crab and it lives and anemone which another animal and they're in a symbiotic relationship and he kind of lives in there and grabs pieces. And they live very happily together. You know, most of the life on earth is actually in the ocean. I'm glad you're picking out these pieces. Life began in the ocean and today most of the diversity is there in the ocean.
STONEAnd 99 percent of all the livable space on the planet, if you consider from the tops of mountains to the bottom of the ocean, 98, 99 percent of it is in the ocean. That's why you get such great life there.
REHMBut at the same time -- I'm really having a problem this morning.
REHMThis cold has just hit my vocal chords. What about seabirds?
STONEYes. The Phoenix Islands contain some of the most important seabird nesting sites in the world. And they include petrels, they include boobies. And I've been on some of these nesting islands and it's an amazing experience because as you approach them, I'll never forget. I thought there was a cloud over the island. There were no clouds anywhere. I thought there was a cloud. And I got closer and I can smell the island.
STONEIt was like after. I saw the cloud about five miles out. Then about two miles out I could smell all the guano. And then at a mile out, I could hear all the birds.
STONEAnd the cloud was actually birds, hundreds of thousands of birds. And they travel throughout the Pacific but they come back to these islands to lay their eggs and breed. And these islands are critical for their survival.
REHMSo if I wanted to go there, what would happen?
STONERight now, it's not possible to go there unless you charter -- unless you have your own boat or charter your own boat or if you have an airplane. There's actually a very nice landings strip on one of the islands that the United States built before they gave the islands back to Kiribati. The United States and the U.K. briefly held these islands after World War II but they gave them back. So there's a beautiful airstrip on one of the islands if someone has an airplane and wants to fly there.
REHMBut how much tourism is encouraged?
STONETourism is encouraged and the government of Kiribati is working on building some access agreements to get tourists there because, you know, this is, as you pointed out in the beginning, this is one of the world's largest marine protected areas. It is the world's largest world heritage site and deepest world heritage site and it's important for people to be able to experience it and go there.
STONEBut because of its remoteness, we don't currently have the mechanisms in place. There are no hotels there. So it's going to have to be boat-based. There aren't any operators that go there. But, you know, sustainable tourism, tourism that doesn't impact the are badly is good kind of tourism, it creates jobs. It creates public awareness and education. So the government of Kiribati is working with partners, would like to get more access to the islands and they're working on some plans right now.
REHMBut how -- what's the difference between good tourism and not-so-good tourism?
STONEWell, it's very easy. Good tourism brings people to regions and all they take away is pictures and they don't leave anything behind and they don't impact the environment. We're getting pretty good at figuring out how to do that. For example, in Antarctica, there's a lot of rules and regulations about how you do it. For example, ships don't, you know, put anything into the water when they're in the islands or in the region.
STONEPeople are not allowed -- when you go ashore in the Bird Islands, if you do, you've got to disinfect your feet so you don't bring any microbes that might impact the population. There is a variety of things you can do, so it's quite easy. And I'm actually a big fan of what's called ecotourism. In other words, ecologically sensible tourism. I think it's very important for us to do that.
REHMBut how do you keep away all of the infectious possibilities?
STONEYou take every precaution that you can.
REHMBut is that enough?
STONEAre you going to stop every single one? Probably not. Are you going to stop most? Probably. And is it going to be better than it's been in the past? Absolutely. You know, the Phoenix Islands, you got to worry about ants. There are actually no ants on the islands.
STONESo there's -- they've never been introduced. So it's something you have to watch out for and we've been very careful about that. You know, if you bring, you know, food or something on the islands. As I mentioned, there could -- if you're eating on your boat, you could have, by chance, some bird microbes that could get on your feet and that could do something. There are other -- we call them invasive species that we can't control that come into the waters of the Phoenix Islands and elsewhere from other sources.
STONEFor example, ships, big ships travelling on the ocean might be cleaning their bowels tanks...
STONE...offshore and they might have taken the water on at another location and there might be animals there that then get introduced and inhabit the area. So that's happening actually all over the oceans, this invasive species problem. I think in San Francisco Bay there was a new invasive species being established every several months, a few years, I'm not quite sure what the status is now. So that's another issue.
REHMAll right. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Tampa, FL. Good morning, Steve.
STEVEGood morning, Diane, and to your guest Gregory. I've been enjoying the conversation so far until the last minute or so. It scares me. And the reason it does, I've been a diver since the mid-'70s here in Florida and around the world. I was also a military diver and I've seen reefs go from in other words pristine at that time to getting stepped on, crunch by divers. And I just really am afraid of what's going to happen to this what sounds to be one of the last pristine coral reefs.
STEVEAnd when you have a small country such as this, it probably has no way to defend against the industry, there's no doubt, when it comes to this area. And this place will look like the Florida Keys reef look now, granted a lot of that is due to fossil fuels runoff from agriculture and things like that, no doubt. But how long will this place last before the double whammy and let humans ruin it?
STONEWell, Steve, I think that's a very insightful comment and I've spent a lot of time in the Keys and I know just exactly what you're saying. And I think there's a tremendous opportunity here in the Phoenix Islands in that it's what I call a baseline. There's no activity at all yet, okay? And so I think we can look at what happened in the Keys and elsewhere and make sure it doesn't happen again.
STONEAnd we can do that. If you have an area that's intact to begin with and you understand the issues that have happened in other areas, there are plans you can put in place. There's funding coming in to this country from international sources. The U.N. Global Environmental Facility is one, the Global Conservation Fund, my own organization, Conservation International. So there are funds coming in to create the services you mentioned that might be lacking.
STONESo I'm optimistic. I think that by bringing people to these areas and instructing them in the ways enjoy the area, to understand the area but not destroy the area, brings jobs, it brings awareness and we've got to figure out how to get it right. But you're absolutely correct, we've got to be very careful.
REHMSteve, do you want to comment?
STEVEYes. I mean, obviously I hope he's right. I mean, you know, I love the marine environment. You know, it's just beautiful. I just -- it's one of those things where you get money, you get the industry, you get people coming in with a lot of money, you're going to have -- I worked on a cattle dive boat for about a year in Key Largo and it just disgusted me, I had to quit as a dive master because these people, they get in the water, they flounder all over the reef.
STEVEThey're breaking corals off. Just tearing it up and it's horrible. And, you know, it's just one of those things where once something is discovered like this and it's brought to the general public and they can get there, they can afford it, there's a lot of people with a lot of money, enjoy sport diving, fishing, collecting the tropical fish for aquariums, all sorts of things and I just don't understand, this is not our country. I don't understand how he has in his power to say what this small tiny government is going to be able to afford to enforce all these laws.
STONEYou know, you're right, I don't have the power to enforce the laws or do it. But I do know the country quite well and I know their intentions and I know they've instilled laws and regulations that would prevent all this. So I think we need to look at models elsewhere in the world where we have managed to create access to pristine areas and not destroy them. And the Keys is not a good model, obviously.
STONEBut Antarctica is a good model. There are places in Indonesia, Raja Ampat is a good model, where it's a protected area and the dive operators are extremely careful about no fins hitting the reef, no damage to the corals. So we can do it.
REHMGregory Stone, his new book is titled, "Underwater Eden." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd one of the issues that Gregory Stone and I were talking about during the break is the fact that the water level is rising. And 50 years from now these islands may not be there.
STONEIt's absolutely correct. The -- because of global warming the oceans level are rising at rates that we haven't seen before rapidly, about a millimeter a year. You could actually see that. If you go down to the coastline you can look and see a millimeter a year. And these islands that these people live on -- they've lived there for thousands of years -- are only about a meter, 3 or 6' out of the water And it's estimated that within about 50 years to 100 years they're going to be underwater or certainly awash in big storms.
STONESo a whole nation -- and there's others like this, they're called low, you know, lying ocean states -- are going to have the same problem. They've got to have somewhere to go. Where are they going to go? Where are they going to live? they're going to still own the ocean out there actually by international laws so they're going to a nation that lives somewhere else but owns a vast part of the ocean with fish. And there's also deep sea minerals out there, you know. The ocean seafloor is--has a lot of rare earth minerals that are now beginning to become viable to harvest. So this country and many others are facing this dilemma.
REHMCould become mythological as did Atlantis.
STONEThat's a very interesting connection to make. This is an -- Kiribati is an amazing culture. They've been around for thousands of years. They have incredible knowledge, incredible abilities. And they're going to be -- their nation is going to be -- their land is going to be lost just like Atlantis. So we have to make sure that the culture and the people are not and they have somewhere to go.
REHMLet's go to Riverdale, Md. Good morning, Jim.
JIMWell, good morning and thank you for your program, generally.
JIMI just caught the last portion of what the gentleman was saying that he was among the group that took the photograph of a wheel that they thought may have been from Amelia Earhart's airplane. And at the same time -- I've been following this thing -- the story generally over the years -- there were native populations that said that the Japanese captured Amelia Earhart and imprisoned her on one of the islands.
JIMAnd I'm just wondering -- I'm just posing it as a question to your guest, is if there's credibility in both of those stories, is it possible that Amelia Earhart would've been captured by the Japanese then they were operating in that part of the Pacific Ocean leading up to World War II, is it possible that the piece of evidence he has of the wheel really did come from her plane but the Japanese got to the island first before anybody else?
STONEYou know, this isn't an area that I'm an expert on so I have to say that, but in answer to your question the answer's probably no. Because right after she was lost there was a massive search effort all through the area to look for her. So there are all sorts of American ships in this area and I don't think that what you described could've happened.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Jim. To Paul in Silver Spring, Md. Good morning.
PAULGood morning. As a bird watcher and a scuba diver I'm very interested in traveling there. But I also respect the fact that this newly created zone does need a high level protection. And I'm intrigued by the idea of tourism in very specific careful ways. Could be exclusively boat bound, since there are no hotels there and I'd like to have your guest comment on that. And also my question of when can I travel there?
STONEWell, Jim, your model of boat is...
REHMNo, this is Paul.
STONEOh Paul, sorry. Paul, your model of boat based is exactly the model that is currently being considered because of the fragility of the land systems. And I would hope that you'd be able to travel there in the next year or two as these systems are developed. And you will have a life-changing experience both underwater and above water when you see these areas as I did seeing that you're a bird watcher.
PAULThank you very much.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. How did the people of Kiribati respond to the idea of creating this marine protection area?
STONEWell, this protected area was created over a long period of time and remember, good things take a while. You know, good food takes a while to cook. And process that goes a little while is usually the best process. And I have to tip my hat to the president of this republic. His name is Anote Tong -- President Anote Tong. And, you know Diane, when I first went to the Phoenix Islands and then I found what we saw, I went to the capital and I wanted to report to the government what I'd found, you know, out of respect and courtesy. Because they gave me a permit to go there and it was -- I had no intentions of helping to create a protect area or propose that or anything.
STONEAnd when I went there and I gave my presentation to the government officials, after my presentation they said, Greg you're the first scientist that has ever come back and told us what they found. Given their vast ocean territories they'd had various expeditions to places, not the Phoenix Island but elsewhere. So they were very respectful of the fact that I had made the long journey to their capital and made this presentation.
STONEAnd then I got to thinking about the idea of a protected area with the president of the county and he like it a lot. And he said, Greg help me with this. And he said he wanted three principles. He wanted there to be enduring ideas that would transcend his presidency. He said, help me with education for the people of Kiribati and also remember, he said, I'm a politician and we've got to get this through parliament.
STONESo Conservation International, the organization I work for and the New England Aquarium, another organization that I used to work for became partners along with other partners. And we began to help the country develop the ideas, the legislation. And President Tong brought it into parliament, debated it. It got a lot of scrutiny and then there was parliamentary legislation passed and very solid legislation that will transcend his presidency, which is what he wanted. What it -- go ahead.
REHMSo what the tradeoff was were these fishing rights to other countries that were brining Kiribati money. Somehow you had to convince them that creating a safety zone for the continued health of the islands was more important. But how do you balance that in terms of the money that was coming in before versus what's not coming in afterwards?
STONEYes, yes. These giant ocean states like Kiribati-- and there's another 41 of them in the world by the way -- control almost all the tuna or most of the tuna that's caught. In fact the 60 percent of the tuna that's caught in the world comes from the central Pacific and a lot of it comes out of Kiribati. And the way it's caught is these countries like Kiribati don't have the boats or the capacity to catch it, so they issue permits to other countries, the United States, China, Japan, Korean. And they come in and take the tuna and they give Kiribati a very tiny fraction of its value for the tuna. So it's not a very good deal. When I...
REHM--for the right to fish and take that tuna.
STONEFor the right to fish and take the tuna out they give them just a tiny -- you know, it's much -- it's like .01 percent of the value of the tuna. So when I found that out early on I said to the Kiribati, so would you consider taking a fee but leave the tuna in the water so you don't lose the money, which is important to their economy. In other words, they would get paid the same amount that the country would've paid them to fish in the Phoenix Islands but they leave the fish in the water.
REHMBut who was going to pay them?
STONEWell, we've set up a trust, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area Trust. And it's -- we currently have $5 million in commitments to it. We need more. All the proceeds from this book, by the way go to that trust to help protect the area. So it's called a reverse fishing license, right? So it's not a standard fishing license where you get to fish. In other words...
REHMYou're paid not to fish.
STONEYeah, the trust pays the country to not take any fish from this area.
REHMAnd is there an equivalency as yet?
STONEThere -- nothing quite like this in the ocean. There are some various buyout schemes, if you will, throughout the world. But this reverse fishing license concept was a first in the ocean. There were examples on land where logging was restricted, where an owner of a big tract of inland in Brazil was paid not to cut the trees down.
REHMOr farmers paid not to grow corn in certain areas.
STONEWell, yes, yes. I think that's an agricultural issue, sort of bouncing the markets.
STONEBut this idea of not logging was to -- and this is something that Conservation International led in -- was to -- it's called a concession where you would buy the logging rights and leave the trees standing. And that's exactly why I originally went to Conservation International for help with the Phoenix Islands because they had experience in these buyout schemed. And the reason they're important is that they are working within the economic framework of the country.
STONEAnd that's where conservation has to be. We have to be in the economic debate. We have to be meeting the needs of countries because countries rely on forests. They rely on oceans. We call it natural capital. And the important thing, Diane, is that we help define the boundaries of sustainability. The framework within which humanity must operate on a sustainable long term basis on planet earth. Because currently we're not operating within that framework.
REHMSo tell me about the people who live in Kiribati.
STONEPeople who live in Kiribati are a wonderful group of people. They are Micronesian by origin. They -- very strong family ties. Very strong connection to the ocean. They have all their religion and their myth and their gods are associated with the ocean. They understand the ocean in incredible ways, ancient ways. They have the ability to provide just amazing hospitality. I hope you can go there someday. And I encourage everybody to look into the government -- the country of Kiribati. It's K-I-R-I-B-A-T-I is how it's spelled. It's spelled strange but it's the country of Kiribati, Micronesia.
REHMBut these people live -- you said it's a small -- fairly small population -- these people live without imports to the island? In other words they live totally sustainably on their own?
STONENo. They have imports of food, gasoline, oil, all those things that modern society needs. Because they are a developing country so they're developing these assets. You know, they used to live totally in balance with the ocean and the environment much like, you know, American Indians and other indigenous populations. And modern society has been thrust upon them rather rapidly so they're now kind of -- like everybody they're kind of reeling trying to figure out how to find that balance again. And they're working in that direction.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's a comment from Facebook. "Please don't let your guest leave without commenting on ocean acidification and the dangers it poses, the so called evil twin of global warming."
STONEYes. There's another impact of high CO2 levels in the atmosphere. I mean, one of them that we're all pretty familiar with is that it creates the greenhouse effect in the oceans and the planet warms up. The other one is that more CO2 is absorbed in the ocean. And as the CO2 gets absorbed in the ocean it creates carbonic acids. It's part of the chemical process, and it makes the oceans more acidic than they were.
STONEAnd this is an issue. It's a problem and it is the evil -- I've never heard that term but it is an evil twin to global warming. And the problem is many animals in the ocean, including coral, have calcium carbonate structures. And these can be very sensitive to more acidic conditions and they can dissolve away. And we're already finding that some animals, especially in Antarctica called tetrapods are beginning to dissolve.
STONESo we have to study this very carefully and we have to hope that the ocean has some resilience. As I said earlier, it's a very resilient thing if we take care of it. But this acidification is serious and I'm glad that someone raised it.
REHMAnd how much of your time are you now spending there?
STONEI don't -- I run a Conversation International's global marine program as well as our science enterprise. So I -- we have offices in 30 countries and I'm involved in a lot of things. This was a project that I was involved in the beginning when the book just came out. I don't spend as much time in Kiribati as I would like. It's one of my favorite places. I probably spend a few weeks a year there. I'd like to spend more.
REHMAnd you stay with people who live on the islands since there are no hotels or...
STONEWell, when I go to the Phoenix Islands I always stay in a boat because there is a small population on one of the islands. They're all government workers, about 20 or 30 people, but when I go to Tarawa, the capital where the president is, where is cabinet is, where many of my friends are, sometimes I stay with friends. Other times I'll stay at -- there's like one hotel there -- one or two hotels.
REHMHow do you think this whole project has changed you?
STONEWell, it -- as I said, my life changed the minute I went underwater in the Phoenix Islands. I suddenly realized the ocean, something that I had loved and adored all my life, what they were really supposed to be like. And it set me on a path to try to get the oceans back to that state elsewhere. So I guess it's inspired me to really amp up my ocean conservation work, apply models like we've learned in the Phoenix Islands elsewhere.
STONEAnd we have -- actually the Phoenix Islands has now been adopted as a model throughout the South Pacific in something called the oceanscape where 15 island leaders, presidents and prime ministers, have all gotten together. And under a plan that President Anote Tong submitted that Conservation International helped develop, they've now created an area that's 10 percent of the planet's surface, okay, 8 percent of all the oceans. And this area is called the Pacific Oceanscape and they've committed to make a network of marine protected areas throughout this area based on the Phoenix Islands Model.
STONEAnd this just gives me -- this is why I get up in the morning. And I guess this is how the Phoenix Island has changed me is that I get to do things like this.
REHMThe book we've been talking about is titled "Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth." Gregory Stone, my guest. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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