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World's Largest Marine Protected Areas Form Conservation Partnership
NEW YORK, New York, September 29, 2009 (ENS) - The two largest marine protected areas in the world are now linked in a partnership to enhance the management and conservation of almost 300,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean.

Encompassing 25 percent of all marine protected areas on Earth, the two sites - one in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and one near the Equator in Kiribati (say Kee-ree-bass) - enjoy a "sister site" relationship based on an agreement signed last week in New York. Managers of both sites will meet in November in French Polynesia to formalize the agreement.

Kiribati President Anote Tong, in New York to speak at the UN General Assembly debate, was present at the signing ceremony. Foreign Secretary Tessie Lambourne signed the agreement on behalf of Kiribati.

Eileen Sobeck, Department of the Interior deputy assistant secretary, signed the agreement on behalf of the United States.

The marine conservation partnership links the Papahanaumokuakea (say Papa-han-ow-mo-ku-ah-kea) Marine National Monument, located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the Republic of Kiribati.

Goatfish school near a shipwreck in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

"The United States is very pleased to engage in this marine conservation partnership with the Republic of Kiribati," said Sobeck. "In the face of challenges like climate change and increasing societal demands on ever scarcer marine resources challenges that transcend national boundaries and dwarf the ability of any single nation to address partnerships like this one are critical to the success of our efforts to preserve this natural heritage for future generations."

"Our sites provide ocean insurance for the Pacific against the depletion of marine life that has accelerated across the globe," said Tukabu Teroroko, director of the Phoenix Island Protected Area. "Together we can more effectively address the complex challenges of managing such large ocean areas."

When it was established in 2006, Papahanaumokuakea was the largest marine protected area in the world, covering natural, cultural and historic resources within an area of 140,000 square miles. The monument's extensive coral reefs are inhabited by more than 7,000 marine species, one-quarter of them found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

In 2008, the Phoenix Island Protected Area was founded to protect the Kiribati archipelago's terrestrial and marine resources. It is now the largest marine protected area in the world covering 158,500 square miles of ocean and islands.

The coral reefs and bird populations of these islands of Kiribati are unique and virtually untouched by humans. The protected area also includes underwater seamounts and other deep-sea habitat.

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area itself is a unique partnership between the government of Kiribati that owns the Phoenix Islands, nongovernmental conservation organizations and regional governments.

Dr. David Obura measures a new table coral growing amidst fields of dead coral at Kanton Island in the Phoenix Islands (Photo by Brian Skerry)

The protected area is supported through a "reverse fishing license" financing program, in which the Kiribati government is reimbursed for the amount of money that it would have made from selling fishing licenses. The government of Kiribati and an advisory board together administer the trust.

"The Phoenix Islands are located right in the middle of the place where El Nino events begin; the genesis of hot water spreading out into the Pacific Ocean," wrote Dr. David Obura, one of the scientists who explored the protected area on a joint Kiribati-U.S. expedition this month.

"This expedition states that the hot water event that occurred in 2002/2003 was the most severe and intense thermal event and longest lasting that has ever been recorded on Earth. So the reefs here were substantially stressed in a way that no other reefs have ever been. And still, they are showing signs of recovery becuase they were healthy prior to the event," Dr. Obura wrote.

Overall, coral cover was almost halfway back to where it was before the bleaching, "which is a phenomenal speed of recovery in six short years,"

Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is cooperatively managed by three co-trustees the U.S. Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior, and the State of Hawaii, joined by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Papahanaumokuakea has been invaded by 13 alien algae, fish and marine invertebrates. Scott Godwin, a NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries resource protection specialist, and other scientists, believe marine alien species got into the remote area as biofouling on the hulls of ships.

A new vessel inspection program, a collaboration between NOAA and the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, tests ballast water and looks for evidence of biofouling on ship hulls using either trained divers or a remotely operated vehicle equipped with a video camera.

Godwin says just six years ago the vessel inspection program was only a framework. Now he estimates formal inspections are conducted on 15-20 vessels each year - everything from research vessels, to the Polynesian sailing canoe the Hokule'a, to large commercial vessels and sail boats.

Although geographically distant from their local population centers, both sites rely on involvement of local and indigenous communities to develop protective management regimes.

Both sites were nominated this year by their respective governments as World Heritage Sites, a designation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.

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