The Kiribati government is lifting the closure of the world’s largest marine protected area- the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), foregoing the” no-take zone” of the area for commercial fishing.

In a press statement issued on Monday, the Office of the President of the Kiribati government also denied that the decision was influenced by “external parties.”

“This is extremely misleading, grossly inaccurate and exhibit the usual hypocritical narratives driven by “neo-colonial precepts”. Similar to any Government, our decisions, as we make them, put the livelihoods of our people at the fore and have been carefully considered and agreed to as a Government,” the statement added.

An earlier report said the alleged opening of the marine protected area was influenced by Kiribati’s ties with China. 

“We urge all concerned parties to refrain from following inaccurate commentaries.  Our decision as a sovereign country and Government is people-centric and commensurate with holistic options for marine protection and management, economic diversification, sustainable tourism and fisheries, to promote the growth of Kiribati’s blue economy, and uplift the lives of all I-Kiribati.”

But the Kiribati government said PIPA promised that it would be able to recoup the revenues loss from fishing licenses.

The government said revenue from fishing licenses accounts for more than 70% of Kiribati total annual revenue.

“The decision to proceed to close off PIPA as a ‘no-take zone’ was made on the assurances that a ‘reversed fishing license’ regime through the PIPA Trust will compensate revenue forgone. This will allow the Government of Kiribati to proceed with its intent to conserve its marine resources through the PIPA initiative and at the same time rely on a new stream of funds to uplift the livelihood of its people. “

The government said after years of the PIPA’s inception it was not sufficient to “meet the present need of the people of Kiribati now and the development needs of the country for the future.”

The statement also reassured that the Kiribati government is committed to the conservation efforts despite opening the marine sanctuary by investing in marine and biodiversity protection and promoting climate resilience  

“Congruent with blue economy principles, the Government of Kiribati has made an informed and collective decision to sustainably develop our marine resources within the PIPA area that will favor both economic and conservation objectives.”

It also noted that an independent Advisory Expert Panel made up of experts from the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat was invited to carry out an assessment on the impact of PIPA closure on Government revenue and present its findings to the Kiribati Tuna Working Group,  

Decline in fishing revenues 

The government claimed that since the PIPA closure in 2015, there has been a decline of demand for fishing in Kiribati EEZ by 8% which is equivalent to 720 fishing days decline in fishing efforts in those years. 

The Kiribati government said the decline had implications on future allocations of Kiribati Vessel Day Scheme share under the Parties to the Nauru Agreement which translated to approximately USD$60m to USD$140 in lost revenue from the marine sanctuary’s closure in 2015 to the present for purse seine fishing and approximately USD$850k is forgone annually or equivalent to USD$5.9m since 2015 for longline fishing.

 The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA)  is known as the world’s largest marine protected area.

Kiribati which is a member of the Pacific’s powerhouse regional organization the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA)  catches 700,000 tonnes a year and more tuna is caught in Kiribati’s waters than in the waters of any other nation on earth. 

According to 1News the decision of the Kiribati government was driven by the desire to open the marine sanctuary area to commercial fishing but former President Anote Tong, who was responsible for overseeing the creation of PIPA during his term said the decision might have something to do with more than fishing.

He said in Tarawa, people are opposed to the decision and that there are ongoing discussions to “stall’ the plan.  He said under the PNA, trading, and selling of fishing days are capped.

 “I don’t see any other way to rationalize this decision, because it seems very unlikely that we would be able to get any additional revenue by opening our PIPA given the existing fisheries management, regional management arrangements.  Where the vessel days scheme is kept…  So only explanation that I’ve come up with is it’s likely that people would be offered as a different package entirely to our select partner or select partners. But that’s always been very quiet, the role of China, if any, in the process has been very, very quietly, never openly discussed up to now.”

Tong said he is very disappointed by the plan but he believes that there is a process to be followed before the Kiribati government can make a final decision. 

“I’m very, very disappointed that I never expected that would this would happen,” he said. 

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