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Mission Blue Voyage

Greg Stone: Saving the ocean one island at a time

April 16, 2010

Aboard Mission Blue, scientist Greg Stone tells the story of how he helped the Republic of Kiribati create an enormous protected area in the middle of the Pacific -- protecting fish, sealife and the island nation itself.

Greg Stone - Oceanographer
Greg Stone was a key driver in the establishment of the Phoenix Island Protected Area in the island nation of Kiribati. The second-largest marine protected area in the world -- and one of the most pristine -- PIPA is a laboratory for exploring and monitoring the recovery of coral reefs from bleaching events. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I guess the story actually has to start
00:16
maybe back in the the 1960s,
00:18
when I was seven or eight years old,
00:20
watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries on the living room floor
00:23
with my mask and flippers on.
00:26
Then after every episode, I had to go up to the bathtub
00:29
and swim around the bathtub and look at the drain,
00:32
because that's all there was to look at.
00:34
And by the time I turned 16,
00:37
I pursued a career in marine science,
00:39
in exploration and diving,
00:42
and lived in underwater habitats, like this one off the Florida Keys,
00:45
for 30 days total.
00:48
Brian Skerry took this shot. Thanks, Brian.
00:50
And I've dived in deep-sea submersibles around the world.
00:52
And this one is the deepest diving submarine in the world,
00:55
operated by the Japanese government.
00:58
And Sylvia Earle and I
01:00
were on an expedition in this submarine
01:02
20 years ago in Japan.
01:04
And on my dive, I went down 18,000 feet,
01:07
to an area that I thought
01:10
would be pristine wilderness area on the sea floor.
01:12
But when I got there, I found
01:15
lots of plastic garbage and other debris.
01:17
And it was really a turning point in my life,
01:19
where I started to realize
01:21
that I couldn't just go have fun doing science and exploration.
01:23
I needed to put it into a context.
01:26
I needed to head towards conservation goals.
01:28
So I began to work
01:31
with National Geographic Society and others
01:33
and led expeditions to Antarctica.
01:36
I led three diving expeditions to Antarctica.
01:39
Ten years ago was a seminal trip,
01:41
where we explored that big iceberg, B-15,
01:43
the largest iceberg in history, that broke off the Ross Ice Shelf.
01:46
And we developed techniques
01:49
to dive inside and under the iceberg,
01:51
such as heating pads on our kidneys
01:53
with a battery that we dragged around,
01:55
so that, as the blood flowed through our kidneys,
01:57
it would get a little boost of warmth
01:59
before going back into our bodies.
02:01
But after three trips to Antarctica,
02:03
I decided that it might be nicer to work in warmer water.
02:05
And that same year, 10 years ago,
02:09
I headed north to the Phoenix Islands.
02:11
And I'm going to tell you that story here in a moment.
02:13
But before I do, I just want you to ponder this graph for a moment.
02:16
You may have seen this in other forms,
02:19
but the top line is the amount of protected area
02:21
on land, globally,
02:24
and it's about 12 percent.
02:26
And you can see that it kind of hockey sticks up
02:28
around the 1960s and '70s,
02:30
and it's on kind of a nice trajectory right now.
02:32
And that's probably because
02:35
that's when everybody got aware of the environment
02:37
and Earth Day
02:39
and all the stuff that happened in the '60s with the Hippies and everything
02:41
really did, I think, have an affect on global awareness.
02:44
But the ocean-protected area
02:46
is basically flat line
02:48
until right about now -- it appears to be ticking up.
02:50
And I do believe that we are at the hockey stick point
02:52
of the protected area in the ocean.
02:55
I think we would have gotten there a lot earlier
02:57
if we could see what happens in the ocean
03:00
like we can see what happens on land.
03:02
But unfortunately, the ocean is opaque,
03:04
and we can't see what's going on.
03:07
And therefore we're way behind on protection.
03:09
But scuba diving, submersibles
03:11
and all the work that we're setting about to do here
03:13
will help rectify that.
03:16
So where are the Phoenix Islands?
03:19
They were the world's largest marine-protected area
03:21
up until last week
03:24
when the Chagos Archipelago was declared.
03:26
It's in the mid-Pacific. It's about five days from anywhere.
03:28
If you want to get to the Phoenix Islands,
03:31
it's five days from Fiji,
03:33
it's five days from Hawaii, it's five days from Samoa.
03:35
It's out in the middle of the Pacific,
03:37
right around the Equator.
03:39
I had never heard of the islands 10 years ago,
03:42
nor the country, Kiribati, that owns them,
03:44
till two friends of mine who run a liveaboard dive boat in Fiji
03:46
said, "Greg, would you lead a scientific expedition up to these islands?
03:49
They've never been dived."
03:52
And I said, "Yeah.
03:54
But tell me where they are and the country that owns them."
03:56
So that's when I first learned of the Islands
03:58
and had no idea what I was getting into.
04:00
But I was in for the adventure.
04:02
Let me give you a little peek here of the Phoenix Islands-protected area.
04:06
It's a very deep-water part of our planet.
04:09
The average depths are about 12,000 ft.
04:13
There's lots of seamounts in the Phoenix Islands,
04:15
which are specifically part of the protected area.
04:17
Seamounts are important for biodiversity.
04:20
There's actually more mountains in the ocean than there are on land.
04:22
It's an interesting fact.
04:25
And the Phoenix Islands is very rich in those seamounts.
04:27
So it's a deep -- think about it in a big three-dimensional space,
04:31
very deep three-dimensional space
04:34
with herds of tuna, whales,
04:36
all kinds of deep sea marine life
04:39
like we've seen here before.
04:41
That's the vessel that we took up there
04:43
for these studies, early on,
04:45
and that's what the Islands look like -- you can see in the background.
04:47
They're very low to the water,
04:50
and they're all uninhabited, except one island
04:52
has about 35 caretakers on it.
04:54
And they've been uninhabited for most of time
04:56
because even in the ancient days,
04:59
these islands were too far away
05:01
from the bright lights of Fiji and Hawaii and Tahiti
05:03
for those ancient Polynesian mariners
05:06
that were traversing the Pacific so widely.
05:08
But we got up there,
05:11
and I had the unique and wonderful scientific opportunity and personal opportunity
05:13
to get to a place that had never been dived
05:16
and just get to an island and go, "Okay, where are we going to dive?
05:18
Let's try there,"
05:20
and then falling into the water.
05:22
Both my personal and my professional life changed.
05:24
Suddenly, I saw a world
05:26
that I had never seen before in the ocean --
05:28
schools of fish that were so dense
05:31
they dulled the penetration of sunlight from the surface,
05:33
coral reefs that were continuous
05:36
and solid and colorful,
05:38
large fish everywhere,
05:40
manta rays.
05:42
It was an ecosystem. Parrotfish spawning --
05:45
this is about 5,000 longnose parrotfish spawning
05:47
at the entrance to one of the Phoenix Islands.
05:50
You can see the fish are balled up
05:52
and then there's a little cloudy area there
05:54
where they're exchanging the eggs and sperm for reproduction --
05:56
events that the ocean is supposed to do,
06:00
but struggles to do in many places now
06:02
because of human activity.
06:04
The Phoenix Islands and all the equatorial parts of our planet
06:06
are very important for tuna fisheries,
06:08
especially this yellowfin tuna that you see here.
06:10
Phoenix Islands is a major tuna location.
06:14
And sharks -- we had sharks on our early dives,
06:16
up to 150 sharks at once,
06:19
which is an indication
06:21
of a very, very healthy, very strong, system.
06:23
So I thought the scenes
06:26
of never-ending wilderness
06:28
would go on forever,
06:30
but they did finally come to an end.
06:32
And we explored the surface of the Islands as well --
06:34
very important bird nesting site,
06:37
some of the most important bird-nesting sites in the Pacific, in the world.
06:39
And we finished our trip.
06:44
And that's the area again.
06:46
You can see the Islands -- there are eight islands --
06:49
that pop out of the water.
06:51
The peaks that don't come out of the water are the seamounts.
06:53
Remember, a seamount turns into an island when it hits the surface.
06:56
And what's the context of the Phoenix Islands?
07:02
Where do these exist?
07:04
Well they exist in the Republic of Kiribati,
07:06
and Kiribati is located in the Central Pacific
07:08
in three island groups.
07:10
In the west we have the Gilbert Islands.
07:13
In the center we have the Phoenix Islands,
07:15
which is the subject that I'm talking about.
07:17
And then over to the east we have the Line Islands.
07:19
It's the largest atoll nation in the world.
07:21
And they have
07:24
about 110,000 people
07:26
spread out over 33 islands.
07:28
They control 3.4 million cubic miles of ocean,
07:31
and that's between one and two percent
07:34
of all the ocean water on the planet.
07:36
And when I was first going up there,
07:38
I barely knew the name of this country 10 years ago,
07:40
and people would ask me,
07:43
"Why are you going to this place called Kiribati?"
07:45
And it reminded me of that old joke
07:47
where the bank robber comes out of the courthouse handcuffed,
07:49
and the reporter yells, "Hey, Willy. Why do you rob banks?"
07:51
And he says, "cause that's where all the money is."
07:54
And I would tell people, "Why do I go to Kiribati?
07:56
Because that's where all the ocean is."
07:59
They basically are one nation
08:01
that controls most of the equatorial waters
08:03
of the Central Pacific Ocean.
08:06
They're also a country
08:09
that is in dire danger.
08:11
Sea levels are rising,
08:13
and Kiribati, along with 42 other nations in the world,
08:15
will be under water within 50 to 100 years
08:18
due to climate change
08:20
and the associated sea-level rise from thermal expansion
08:22
and the melting of freshwater into the ocean.
08:25
The Islands rise only one to two meters
08:28
above the surface.
08:30
Some of the islands have already gone under water.
08:32
And these nations are faced with a real problem.
08:35
We as a world are faced with a problem.
08:37
What do we do with displaced fellow Earthlings
08:40
who no longer have a home on the planet?
08:43
The president of the Maldives
08:46
conducted a mock cabinet meeting
08:48
underwater recently
08:50
to highlight the dire straits of these countries.
08:52
So it's something we need to focus on.
08:54
But back to the Phoenix Islands,
08:57
which is the subject of this Talk.
09:00
After I got back, I said,
09:02
okay, this is amazing, what we found.
09:04
I'd like to go back and share it with the government of Kiribati,
09:06
who are over in Tarawa,
09:09
the westernmost group.
09:11
So I started contacting them --
09:13
because they had actually given me a permit to do this --
09:15
and I said, "I want to come up and tell you what we found."
09:17
And for some reason they didn't want me to come,
09:20
or it was hard to find a time and a place, and it took a while,
09:22
but finally they said, "Okay, you can come.
09:25
But if you come, you have to buy lunch
09:27
for everybody who comes to the seminar."
09:29
So I said, "Okay, I'm happy to buy lunch.
09:31
Just get whatever anybody wants."
09:33
So David Obura, a coral reef biologist, and I went to Tarawa,
09:35
and we presented for two hours
09:38
on the amazing findings of the Phoenix Islands.
09:40
And the country never knew this. They never had any data from this area.
09:42
They'd never had any information from the Phoenix Islands.
09:45
After the talk, the Minister of Fisheries walked up to me
09:48
and he said, "Greg, do you realize
09:51
that you are the first scientist
09:53
who has ever come back
09:55
and told us what they did?"
09:57
He said, "We often issue these permits
09:59
to do research in our waters,
10:01
but usually we get a note two or three years later,
10:03
or a reprint.
10:05
But you're the first one who's ever come back and told us what you did.
10:07
And we really appreciate that. And we're buying you lunch today.
10:10
And are you free for dinner?"
10:13
And I was free for dinner,
10:15
and I went out to dinner with the Minister of Fisheries in Kiribati.
10:17
And over the course of dinner,
10:19
I learned that Kiribati gains most of its revenue --
10:21
it's a very poor country --
10:24
but it gains what revenue is has
10:26
by selling access to foreign nations
10:28
to take fish out of its waters,
10:30
because Kiribati does not have the capacity
10:32
to take the fish itself.
10:34
And the deal that they strike
10:36
is the extracting country
10:38
gives Kiribati five percent
10:40
of the landed value.
10:42
So if the United States
10:44
removes a million dollars'
10:46
worth of lobsters from a reef,
10:48
Kiribati gets 50,000 dollars.
10:50
And, you know, it didn't seem like a very good deal to me.
10:53
So I asked the Minister over dinner,
10:56
I said, "Would you consider a situation
10:58
where you would still get paid --
11:01
we do the math and figure out what the value of the resource is --
11:04
but you leave fish and the sharks
11:07
and the shrimp in the water?"
11:09
He stopped, and he said, "Yes, we would like to do that
11:11
to deal with our overfishing problem,
11:14
and I think we would call it a reverse fishing license."
11:16
He coined the term "reverse fishing license."
11:19
So I said, "Yes, a 'reverse fishing license.'"
11:21
So we walked away from this dinner
11:24
really not knowing where to go at that point.
11:26
I went back to the States and started looking around
11:28
to see if I could find examples
11:30
where reverse fishing licenses
11:33
had been issued,
11:35
and it turned out there were none.
11:37
There were no oceanic deals
11:39
where countries were compensated for not fishing.
11:41
It had occurred on land,
11:44
in rainforests of South America and Africa,
11:46
where landowners had been paid
11:49
not to cut the trees down.
11:51
And Conservation International had struck some of those deals.
11:53
So I went to Conservation International
11:55
and brought them in as a partner
11:57
and went through the process
12:00
of valuing the fishery resource,
12:02
deciding how much Kiribati should be compensated,
12:05
what the range of the fishes were,
12:08
brought in a whole bunch of other partners --
12:10
the government of Australia,
12:12
the government of New Zealand, the World Bank.
12:14
The Oak Foundation and National Geographic
12:16
have been big funders of this as well.
12:18
And we basically founded the park
12:20
on the idea of an endowment
12:22
that would pay the equivalent lost fishing license fees
12:24
to this very poor country
12:27
to keep the area intact.
12:29
Halfway through this process, I met the president of Kiribati,
12:31
President Anote Tong.
12:33
He's a really important leader,
12:35
a real visionary, forward-thinking man,
12:37
and he told me two things when I approached him.
12:39
He said, "Greg, there's two things I'd like you to do.
12:41
One is, remember I'm a politician,
12:44
so you've got to go out and work with my ministers
12:46
and convince the people of Kiribati that this is a good idea.
12:48
Secondly, I'd like you to create principles
12:51
that will transcend my own presidency.
12:53
I don't want to do something like this
12:55
if it's going to go away after I'm voted out of office."
12:57
So we had very strong leadership, very good vision
13:00
and a lot of science, a lot of lawyers involved.
13:03
Many, many steps were taken to pull this off.
13:06
And it was primarily because Kiribati realized
13:09
that this was in their own self-interest to do this.
13:12
They realized that this was a common cause
13:14
that they had found
13:16
with the conservation community.
13:18
Then in 2002,
13:21
when this was all going full-swing,
13:23
a coral-bleaching event happened in the Phoenix Islands.
13:26
Here's this resource that we're looking to save,
13:29
and it turns out it's the hottest heating event
13:32
that we can find on record.
13:34
The ocean heated up as it does sometimes,
13:36
and the hot spot formed and stalled
13:39
right over the Phoenix Islands for six months.
13:42
It was over 32 degrees Celsius for six months
13:45
and it basically killed
13:48
60 percent of the coral.
13:50
So suddenly we had this area that we were protecting,
13:52
but now it appeared to be dead, at least in the coral areas.
13:54
Of course the deep-sea areas and the open ocean areas were fine,
13:57
but the coral, which everybody likes to look at, was in trouble.
14:00
Well, the good news is it's recovered
14:03
and recovering fast,
14:05
faster than any reef we've seen.
14:07
This picture was just taken by Brian Skerry a few months ago
14:09
when we returned to the Phoenix Islands
14:12
and discovered that, because it is a protected area
14:14
and has healthy fish populations
14:17
that keep the algae grazed down
14:20
and keep the rest of the reef healthy,
14:23
the coral is booming, is just booming back.
14:25
It's almost like if a person
14:28
has multiple diseases,
14:30
it's hard to get well, you might die,
14:32
but if you only have one disease to deal with, you can get better.
14:34
And that's the story with climate-change heating.
14:37
It's the only threat,
14:39
the only influence that the reef had to deal with.
14:41
There was no fishing, there was no pollution, there was no coastal development,
14:44
and the reef is on a full-bore recovery.
14:47
Now I remember that dinner I had with the Minister of Fisheries 10 years ago
14:51
when we first brought this up and I got quite animated during the dinner
14:54
and said, "Well, I think that the conservation community
14:57
might embrace this idea, Minister."
14:59
He paused and put his hands together and said,
15:01
"Yes, Greg,
15:03
but the devil will be in the details," he said.
15:05
And it certainly was.
15:07
The last 10 years have been detail after detail
15:09
ranging from creating legislation
15:12
to multiple research expeditions
15:15
to communication plans,
15:18
as I said, teams of lawyers,
15:20
MOUs,
15:22
creating the Phoenix Islands Trust Board.
15:24
And we are now in the process of raising the full endowment.
15:27
Kiribati has frozen extracting activities
15:29
at its current state while we raise the endowment.
15:32
We just had our first PIPA Trust Board meeting three weeks ago.
15:35
So it's a fully functional
15:38
up-and-running entity
15:40
that negotiates the reverse fishing license with the country.
15:42
And the PIPA Trust Board holds that license
15:45
and pays the country for this.
15:48
So it's a very solid, very well thought-out,
15:50
very well grounded system,
15:52
and it was a bottom-up system,
15:55
and that was very important with this work,
15:57
from the bottom up to secure this.
15:59
So the conditions for success here are listed.
16:01
You can read them yourselves.
16:03
But I would say the most important one in my mind
16:05
was working within the market forces
16:07
of the situation.
16:09
And that insured that we could move this forward
16:11
and it would have both the self-interest of Kiribati
16:14
as well as the self-interest of the world.
16:17
And I'll leave you with one final slide,
16:20
that is: how do we scale this up?
16:22
How do we realize Sylvia's dream?
16:24
Where eventually do we take this?
16:26
Here's the Pacific
16:28
with large MPAs
16:30
and large conservation zones on it.
16:33
And as you can see,
16:37
we have a patchwork across this ocean.
16:39
I've just described to you the one story
16:42
behind that rectangular area in the middle, the Phoenix Islands,
16:44
but every other green patch on that
16:47
has its own story.
16:49
And what we need to do now
16:51
is look at the whole Pacific Ocean
16:53
in its entirety
16:55
and make a network of MPAs
16:57
across the Pacific
16:59
so that we have our world's largest ocean
17:01
protected and self-sustaining
17:03
over time.
17:05
Thank you very much. (Applause)
17:07

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Greg Stone - Oceanographer
Greg Stone was a key driver in the establishment of the Phoenix Island Protected Area in the island nation of Kiribati. The second-largest marine protected area in the world -- and one of the most pristine -- PIPA is a laboratory for exploring and monitoring the recovery of coral reefs from bleaching events.

Why you should listen

Greg Stone began his career as an ocean scientist, pioneering research in Antarctica on marine mammals and ice ecology where he mastered the art of diving into icebergs. Today he is well-known for his leadership in the effort to create the world’s second-largest marine protected area (MPA), around the Phoenix Islands in Kiribati.

Working with the government of Kiribati, Stone helped establish the MPA using market-based tools to conserve ocean biodiversity, in order to encourage continued local economic development rather than destruction of local communities livelihoods. Stone is the Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International and a prolific author and speaker on the state of the marine environment and how policy can make change.

The original video is available on TED.com
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