The Republic of Kiribati is an ocean and island nation stretching over 3,500,000 square kilometers. It is located in the central Pacific Ocean on both sides of the equator, approximately midway between Australia in the southern hemisphere and Hawaii in the northern hemisphere. Kiribati is composed of three island groups; the Gilbert, the Phoenix and the Line Islands. Together these three archipelagos contain 33 islands with a land area of 811 square kilometers. At well less than 1% land by area of its sovereign domain, Kiribati is truly an ‘oceanic nation’.
The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Kiribati, just five degrees south of the equator. PIPA is the world’s first large, truly deep water MPA. As a vast expanse of largely pristine mid-ocean environments, PIPA is truly an oceanic wilderness. Encompassing 408,250 square kilometers (157,626 square miles) and 11% of Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), PIPA represents one of Earth’s last intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems. The remoteness of the area and the absence of permanent human settlement provide a unique opportunity for a high standard of habitat protection for species and ecosystems of global importance to science and conservation, from islands to deep ocean.
Within its boundaries, it includes all eight atoll and low reef islands of the Kiribati section of the Phoenix Island group: Rawaki, Enderbury, Nikumaroro, McKean, Manra, Birnie, Kanton and Orona. It also includes two submerged reefs, Carondelet Reef and Winslow Reef, with Carondelet Reef being as little as 3 to 4 meters underwater at low tide. The coral reefs of the Phoenix Islands are what a reef might have looked like a thousand years ago before the presence of humankind’s impacts, such as coastal development, pollution, and over fishing. The Phoenix Islands exhibit classic remote island and atoll characteristics, including steep reef drop-offs, relatively low species diversity and low endemicity, high fish abundance, harsh island habitats and vegetation, and large seabird nesting colonies.
The majority of habitat in PIPA is comprised of ocean floor with a water column averaging more than 4,000 meters (2.5 miles) deep with a maximum at 6,147 meters. It is estimated that there could be more than 30 seamounts within PIPA though to date only nine have been named. Because the deep sea is mostly unexplored, protecting it safeguards many species that have yet to be studied or even discovered.
PIPA has only one settlement of about 25 people on Kanton, made up of government employees and their families. The other seven islands of the MPA are uninhabited. PIPA provides protection for terrestrial habitats on each of its islands safeguarding important nesting grounds for seabirds, several of which are threatened or endangered, and rare traditional plants that have cultural and medicinal values in Kiribati, but are now threatened on more populated islands.