Kiribati boasts one of the world’s largest no-fishing reserves, but its marine life is anything but safe.
Meet President Anote Tong of Kiribati, a Central Pacific country of three-dozen postcard-pretty coral atolls that may become uninhabitable someday because global warming is causing ocean levels to rise. Tong, 61, has been in power for a decade, during which time he has become a darling of the environmental community, a fixture at climate change conferences who is showered with prizes and praise. His signal achievement? Under his leadership, Kiribati (pronounced KEE-ree-bahss) created the 150,000-square-mile Phoenix Islands Protected Area, “a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.” That exact phrase, according to Google, appears on more than 600 websites, including Tong’s Wikipedia page. Most impressive, the reserve lies in one of the most intensively fished areas in the world, home to the last large stocks of tuna. “What moved the tiny country to take this monumental action?” a typical news article in Mongabay.com recently asked. “President Anote Tong says Kiribati is sending a message to the world: ‘We need to make sacrifices to provide a future for our children and grandchildren.'”
In a speech that he gave at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit last January, Tong mentions “the initiative of my country in closing off 400,000 square kilometers of our [waters]from commercial fishing activities, … our contribution to global oceans conservation efforts.” Scrolling under the speech, I read that The Pacific Calling Partnership, an Australian nonprofit, “is honored to commend President Tong for consideration as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 or 2014.”
Now meet Gregory Stone, a prominent marine scientist, former Pew Fellow, and senior vice president of the New England Aquarium. In 2000, Stone went diving in the Phoenix Islands, which had been uninhabited for 20 years, and found them to be so abundant in now rare reef fish like sharks, Napoleon wrasses, and bumphead parrotfish that he persuaded Tong to create a marine reserve to protect them against future fishing. Tong liked the idea and decided the reserve should be the size of California, about 11 percent of the country’s waters. Stone brought the project to the environmental NGO Conservation International, a 26-year-old offshoot of The Nature Conservancy. The reserve soon became a centerpiece of CI’s work, the first project mentioned in its Wikipedia page. Stone became senior vice president and chief scientist for oceans at CI while keeping his title at the New England Aquarium. Last year, Tong joined CI’s board, where he gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Harrison Ford, CI’s vice-chairman. Tong, gushes a profile on CI’s website, “has gone further than almost anyone to protect the planet’s most pristine waters for the global good.”
As recently as March of this year, the New England Aquarium’s website echoed such boasts: “Today, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, and is safe from the threats of commercial fishing and habitat destruction.” (Since I started asking hard questions, the aquarium has edited its website and removed that last phrase.)
There’s just one problem with this stirring story: It’s a lie.
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