Monday, October 29, 2012

Underwater Eden: new book explores the Phoenix Island Protected Area

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) came into existence in 2006.  It was, at the time, the largest marine protected area in the world and was the result of a courageous step by the government of the Republic of Kiribati - a South Pacific nation consisting of what was once known as the Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands.  With scientific support from Conservation International and other research institutions, like the New England Aquarium, an area of over 157,000 square miles was designated as a protected area, including eight islands, several major submerged reefs, hundreds of square miles of corals ecosystems and vast areas of open ocean protected from commercial fishing.  In 2010, PIPA was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and, while it has been surpassed in size by other marine protected areas, it still stands as a major success in forward-thinking ocean management.

But how did such a monumental step in marine ecology management come to pass?  How did the government of Kiribati come to this ground-breaking decision?  What did marine researchers find in assessing the area?  What makes PIPA so special in terms of sealife? And what are the plans for the future?  To answer these questions, many of the people involved in the development and study of PIPA have put pen to paper and a new book will be available in November, Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth.

Edited by Greg Stone, PhD., chief ocean scientist at Conservation International, and David Obura, PhD., adjunct senior scientist with the New England Aquarium, Underwater Eden details the evolution of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area from the difficult political decision-making (the formation of PIPA would entail the loss of international commercial fishing licenses totaling in the millions of dollars), the initial scientific expeditions to catalog the various species of animal and plant life - from fish to seabirds to invasive insects, to the future plans to ensure not only the health and vibrancy of PIPA but the economic well-being of the Kiribati people.

The Kiribati people figure prominently in this book.  Their culture is one that has been forever tied to the sea.  While the ocean is an important key to their survival, they also understand that the ocean, too, must survive.  Both their fates are intertwined and their commitment to PIPA is both heart warming and encouraging.  If only the rest of the planet could see the oceans through the eyes of the Kiribati people.

Through words and striking pictures from top notch photographers like Brian Skerry, Paul Nicklen, and Cat Holloway, Underwater Eden presents the treasures of the Phoenix Islands that rest just beneath the waves.  From 2000 to 2009, four scientific expeditions set out to observe the variety of sealife and document the condition of the coral reefs.  Such studies established a baseline by which the health of the protected area could be monitored and assessed.  However, even in a pristine environment, there can be threats.  Early in PIPA's history, it was impacted by shark fishing poachers (who were ultimately apprehended) and by a coral bleaching event in 2002.  Fortunately, the shark population rebounded as did the coral reefs, serving as examples of nature's resiliency when given a chance to recover.

Greg Stone has often said that through the Phoenix Islands he is able to get a glimpse as to how the oceans were a thousand years ago.  And through Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth, we are able to get our own glimpse as to just what he was talking about.  Full of personal first-hand accounts, interesting sidebars, and great photos, this is a book that will strengthen the resolve of dedicated ocean conservationists and enlighten those who do not yet understand the importance of marine protected areas.

You can pre-order Underwater Eden through Amazon in its hard copy edition, just in time for the holiday gift season.  It is very reasonably priced and, most importantly, all of the proceeds go to support the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.  In bringing the back story of one of the most significant steps taken in ocean conservation, this book also provides you with the opportunity to make a contribution to preserving an amazing coral wilderness which continues to serve as a model for critically-needed protected areas worldwide.

Available at

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