Brightly colored christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus spp.) delicately filter feed from their home in a Porites spp. coral colony on Enderbury Island. Photo: Jim StringerBy Tanya Dimitrova, special to mongabay.com
23 September 2013

(mongabay.com) – In 2010 President Anote Tong of Kiribati made a historic pledge, committing to protect the waters around his island nation in a massive marine protected area. He said the gesture represented Kiribati’s contribution to protecting the environment and he urged industrial countries to do the same by cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten low-lying islands with rising sea levels. The commitment raised Tong’s profile, winning him international accolades, and boosted the tiny country’s standing in the fight against climate change. But since 2010 questions have begun to emerge about the extent of Tong’s commitment.

In a 2010 interview with mongabay, President Anote Tong of Kiribati proudly boasted that the entire 408,250 square kilometers (~150,000 square miles) Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) – a large marine park roughly the size of California -- was off limits to commercial fishing. Partly for this achievement, he has received two prestigious awards for environmental leadership.

According to the PIPA management plan, however, only 3.1 percent of the reserve area is strictly protected from commercial fishing. Protection is extended to the reefs around the uninhabited islands within the reserve – an area smaller than the San Francisco Bay Area. Offshore fishing vessels can legally exploit the remaining 97 percent of the UNESCO-designated marine protected area.

And so they do. More than 400 vessels fish legally inside PIPA, said Betarim Rimon, information officer for PIPA in his online office hours. Fishing fleets come from the U.S., EU, South Korea, China, Japan and other nations. A purse seiner (a typical fishing vessel) catches on average 32 tons of tuna per day.

“For Kiribati to allow commercial fishing in almost 100 percent of the PIPA protected area is at odds with the bold promises of PIPA's objective as heralded by President Tong when he first launched it,” said Seni Nabou, Pacific Political Advisor for Greenpeace.

Dr. Gregory Stone, Executive Vice President of Conservation International and the person who first proposed the creation of PIPA, replies that such measures do not get implemented overnight. Restriction of all fishing has always been part of the phased approach and will happen soon, as planned.

“I can only guess that some confusion probably resulted from mixing up plans and aspirations with the current status of the management plan,” said Stone.

Selling fishing licenses to foreign fleets accounts for around $27 million per year, more than 40 percent of the Kiribati’s national revenue. To recoup this income, President Tong has requested financial compensation (sometimes called "reverse fishing licenses") to close the remaining 97 percent of PIPA to fishing.

In this type of conservation effort, donors pay the country an amount comparable to what it would receive from selling real fishing licenses, on condition that the fish are left in the ocean instead. “Reverse fishing licenses’ are also referred to as compensation for lost revenue. [more]

President's pledge to ban commercial fishing around Pacific island nation slow to materialize

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