Over the past few weeks I’ve been immersed in the details of marine protected areas (MPAs) as I prepare a TIME story on the oceanographer Sylvia Earle and her crusade to defend the endangered oceans. Much of that focus has been on the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean, where Earle and I visited last week. But as promising as the movement to protect the Sargasso Sea is, something equally ambitious is happening over in the Pacific Ocean, where the island nation of Kiribati is leading the way toward creating a vast protected area throughout the planet’s largest body of water. It’s called the Pacific Oceanscape, and it may represent the best chance to defend the oceans against the rising threats of overfishing, pollution and climate change. “The idea is to provide a linkage for all the different marine protected areas in the Pacific so they become more comprehensive,” says President Anote Tong of Kiribati, who has led the initiative. “The ocean is a much larger system than any one nation.”
That’s especially true in the Pacific, which makes up one-third of the planet, much of which is completely open water. (Indeed, some 60% of the world’s oceans are “high seas,” meaning they are beyond the 200-mile coastal exclusive economic zone controlled by individual nations.) But crafting protection on the high seas begins with nations acting to conserve their own waters—and that’s exactly what Kiribati has done. Over the past few years Kiribati—a collection of 32 atolls and one coral island spread out over 1.35 million sq. mi in the central Pacific—created a 157,000 sq. mi protected area around its Phoenix Islands, building one of the most effective MPAs on the planet. The Phoenix Islands are, as Conservation International (CI) oceans expert Greg Stone puts it, “are the oceans as they were a thousand years ago,” before the effects of overfishing and pollution, before man began to change the blue. Its coral reefs are resilient and intact, stocked with the sharks and other large predatory fish that are the mark of true marine health. Now, thanks to Kiribati’s decision to protect much of the waters around the islands—done with the help of CI—it’s likely to stay that way. “It’s just a wonderful, wonderful place,” says Stone, who participated in some of the first systematic underwater surveys of the Phoenix Islands. “It changed my attitude about what the ocean could be.”
Kiribati’s decision to protect the Phoenix Islands came as other countries in the Pacific began to create MPAs, including the U.S.—towards the end of his time in office, former President George W. Bush created a 140,000 sq. mi marine monument around Hawaii’s northwest islands. The island of Palau has pushed the Micronesia Challenge, which would see regional governments conserve at least 30% of their coastal waters and 20% of their forests, while the World Wildlife Fund has urged governments in the Pacific’s threatened Coral Triangle to increase their coral reef protection by 50%. Now Tong is pushing his fellow leaders to create the Pacific Oceanscape, what would essentially be a joint, sustainable and long-term management—including of fisheries—of the 24 million sq. mi of waters surrounding the Pacific island countries. (That territory would be larger than Canada, the U.S. and Mexico—combined.) It would include areas of the high seas that currently have little management, connecting protected areas in what Tong calls “arcs,” the founding units for a true oceanscape. “This is about managing the oceans, the parts that we’ve declared protected and the parts that we haven’t yet,” says Tong.
Leaders at the annual Pacific Islands Leadership Forum last month in Vanuatu supported moving ahead with the oceanscape idea, and right now many of the most important players in the deal are meeting in San Francisco at the California and the World Ocean Conference. It’s still an ambitious idea—high-seas management is in its relative infancy, as countries grapple over how to properly manage territory that falls outside any one capital’s control—but it’s an idea whose time has come. For Tong, whose island nation could literally be swallowed by the rising seas caused by climate change, conserving the oceans is a matter of national life-or-death, but the rest of us depend on healthy oceans as well. “We’ve always assumed the ocean is a dumping ground without limits,” says Tong. “But the scientists are telling us we’ve hit those limits. It’s time to take better care of the oceans around us.” Providing legal protection to the oceans—something we’ve long failed to do—has to happen.