Phoenix Islands Protected Area

(Year of inscription 2010, Area: 408,250 km2, Site 1325)

Benefits from WH designation:

  • Endowment Fund/Conservation Trust

    - valuation of key biological resources protected in a site can form the basis for target levels of financing and the total value of an endowment fund. Phased protection and complementary funding levels can make a Trust Fund viable, under strict conditions for implementation.
  • Reference site for human impacts and restoration

    - this remote archipelago provides a rare opportunity to understand human impacts and to demonstrate success in reversing impacts/restoration with appropriate interventions, and thereby to inform resource management on populated islands.
  • Globally relevant research collaborations

    - PIPA's status of minimal human impacts from local threats makes it a natural laboratory for understanding impacts from global climate change. By establishing a collaborative ten-year research strategy PIPA will gain from the contributions of multiple research partners, many of whom are global leaders, thus raising the global profile of PIPA through reporting of research results.


The Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA) is in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, encompassing the entire Phoenix Island Group, one of three island groups in Kiribati. It is the second largest Marine Protected Area in the world and the largest World Heritage Site. PIPA conserves one of the world's largest intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems, comprising 8 islands (including 3 atolls), 14 known underwater sea mounts (presumed to be extinct volcanoes) and extensive deep-sea habitats. Due to its great isolation PIPA occupies a unique position in the biogeography of the Pacific as a critical stepping stone for migratory and pelagic/planktonic species, in the pathway of ocean currents.

Criteria of inscription:

  • vii-superlative features

    - it is a vast oceanic wilderness - the essentially pristine environment, water clarity, large groups of charismatic aquatic animals, aesthetically outstanding coral reef features and huge concentrations of seabirds, make this property a truly kaleidoscopic natural "oceanscape" of exceptional natural beauty.
  • ix-biological processes

    - a breeding site for numerous nomadic, migratory and pelagic marine and terrestrial species, with high levels of endemism associated with isolated mid-ocean atolls, submerged reefs and seamounts. A natural laboratory for the study and understanding of the evolution and development of marine ecosystems of the Pacific. Scientific importance in identifying and evaluating effects of climate change independently of local anthropogenic impacts.
  • Integrity

    - the site has high integrity because its boundaries are clearly demarcated, its large size and full inclusion of oceanic and island habitats, and predominantly natural state.
  • Protection

    - legally protected under national legislation, managed under a multi-sectoral Management Committee representing a "whole of government approach with partners" to ensure a management system that is sustainable and suitable to its remoteness and Kiribati as a Small Island Developing State. Financial security is vested in an endowment fund operated by an independent Trust, which when capitalized will cover all management costs and royalties to the national Treasury. Key threats include tuna fishing, illegal fishing of inshore waters and coral reefs, invasive alien species, unregulated visitation and climate change.

Some key successes:

  • Full protection of an entire island archipelago

    and partial/future protection for most of the EEZ.
  • Obtaining the

    high level political and government support

    for the protected area at Parliament, Cabinet and Presidential levels.
  • Collaboration internationally

    e.g. with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM, Hawaii) to build capacity for management.
  • Creation of the PIPA Trust

    with an independent Director and Board, and capitalization at $5 million on 23 Sept. 2013.
  • Eradication of invasive mammal species

    from 3 of 8 islands.

Some major challenges:

  • Illegal fishing

    within the islands, particularly for shark fin, prior to full protection.
  • Very high value of tuna fisheries

    to the national economy creates strong opposition to the protected area.
  • Logistical and cost challenges

    due to the remoteness of the archipelago.
  • Human resources and site-based management

    a challenge for a small island developing state.
  • Capitalizing the endowment fund.

  • Maintaining effective biosecurity.

Case study lessons - expected and unexpected contributions of a World Heritage Site

Design and Capitalization of a Conservation Trust

- The Republic of Kiribati, Conservation International and the New England Aquarium developed the management plan for PIPA over several years of joint scientific research and discussions, with funding and technical assistance provided by CI's Global Conservation Fund. Now in its first phase of implementation, 3% of the protected area is closed off to all fishing (about 12,000 km2), and additional fishing restrictions around the islands cover a further 12.5% of the total area (52,000 km2). This fully protects over 80% of the high priority habitats and key species identified within the protected area. Through a process of valuing the resources conserved in these protected zones, progressive targets were set for capitalization of the PIPA Trust, which received its first commitment of $ 5 million from the Global Conservation Fund and the government of Kiribati on 23 September 2013. In further phases, the 'no-take zone' coverage increase to 25% of the total area of PIPA, with a final Trust Fund value of $25 million. Income from the trust fund demonstrates that the WH site is an investment for the long-term and sustained benefits of the present and future generations of Kiribati, in terms of ensuring sustainable income in particular from managed tuna fisheries, and from the value of the intact ecosystems and their importance globally.

Reference site for managing human impacts, restoration and sustainable use

- As one of three island groups in Kiribati, and the only one with no permanent settlement, the Phoenix Islands offer a reference site for understanding human impacts to vulnerable island ecosystems from both people and global climate change. Most of the islands have had some level of protection for the last 30-40 years, and only some of them have experienced sporadic settlement and use, such as for guano, coconuts and fishing, over several hundreds of years. They can thus serve as reference sites for resource management in populated islands.
A comprehensive programme of invasive species eradications has been underway since 2006, resulting in successful elimination of all invasive mammal species from Rawaki, McKean and Birnie. Invasive species (including 2 species of rats, and house cats) remain on the remaining 5 islands, with plans to clear these under the eradication plan. Kanton is the only island currently with people (~20-30 people). As a result, the island experiences only low-level subsistence exploitation, though impacts on rare terrestrial species can be high. A Sustainable Use plan is under development for Kanton, that specifies what harvesting of marine and terrestrial species is possible for the caretaker population, as well as capacity and impact levels for potential development of ecotourism.

Research and collaboration

- The Phoenix Islands Protected Area Management Plan, as well as the criteria for WH inscription, recognize the value of this remote archipelago to research and monitoring of the environment. It can serve as a reference site or baseline for studies elsewhere. In particular, and partly due to its location in the 'ground zero' for strong El Niño/La Niña cycles, PIPA has value as a climate change reference site due to the lack of other impacts. The 10-year (2010-2019) Research Agenda aims to study it in a regional context with the Gilbert, Line, and Northwestern Hawai'ian Islands, and as a reference site within the Pacific Oceanscape under four themes: a) exploration, particularly of the deep sea and benthic habitats, and seamounts; b) connectivity of island and pelagic systems, particularly large reef and pelagic fishes, shark and tuna; c) coral bleaching biology and the influence of natural factors on bleaching resistance and reef recovery; and d) the dynamics of social and environmental systems. PIPA has established partnerships to undertake the research strategy, e.g. with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Coastal Resources Center, Conservation International's Marine Managed Areas Science Program, and through PIPA's sister-site agreement with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM Hawai'i).

Prepared by: David Obura; Photos: PIPA photo gallery, Cat Holloway, Randi Rotjan.