When we landed in Tarawa, a tiny atoll in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, after a 24-hour trip from Los Angeles, the plane windows were soaked with rain. I had been warned that the island would be unbelievably dry with dust plumes blowing over the streets – and it was raining.
It turns out our commercial flight was the welcome wagon ushering Tropical Cyclone Pam into the South Pacific.
The first thing that I saw upon landing was a swarm of kids watching the spectacle of the Fiji Airways jet pulling up to the small building and open-air waiting area that constituted Bonriki International Airport. The weekly entertainment gathers curious spectators of all ages.
The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced KEE-ree-buhss) constitutes 33 islands spanning across 3.5 million square kilometers of open ocean. These islands lie roughly between Australia and Hawaii in the middle of the South Pacific. They are grouped into three major areas: The Gilbert Islands, which is home to the capital of Tarawa, the Phoenix Islands, and the Line Islands. The country is home to some the healthiest coral reefs in the world, far outshining the Great Barrier Reef in terms of coral cover and biodiversity.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has been conducting research cruises to Kiribati for over a decade and possesses perhaps the most comprehensive collection of information on the natural environment of Kiribati, particularly the Line Islands, than any other institution in the world. The institution therefore has the opportunity to further its relationship with local management and conservation partners to ensure that science is available, useful, and supportive of the country’s marine protection priorities.
Kiribati bears a special distinction with the recent development of its Phoenix Islands Protected Area – the second largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world as well as the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site – and growing interest among the Kiribati government to secure similar protection for the Line Islands. The country is still in the nascent stages of building effective tools and supportive policies for marine conservation and management, and could one day leverage its successes to boost economic development and international attention. Kiribati could be a model for translating successful dialogue between scientists and resource managers into effective policy to support the long-term stability of its people, natural resources, and economy.
I had been organizing this trip for several months. As a Scripps masters student, I am working on protected area management and science communication with the Sandin and Smith labs. I have been collaborating with the Government of Kiribati, Conservation International, the New England Aquarium, and other researchers at Scripps to make Line Islands field research findings a useful guide for conservation decisions and priorities that Kiribati is establishing now. We were there to meet with local stakeholders to share information and help identify potential paths forward for conservation of the Line Islands.
But a critical first step in science communication is listening, and my visit to Tarawa was largely devoted to that. Fellow Scripps colleague Brian Zgliczynski and I met one-on-one with staff at the various environmental ministries and conservation offices to learn about existing initiatives and priorities and to discuss how our research at Scripps could help inform their work. We are hoping to develop a partnership between Scripps and the management entities in Kiribati so that scientific information is available, accessible, and useful to support local conservation efforts. In the future, Scripps could provide support for drafting fishing regulations, training the people of Kiribati, who are known as I-Kiribati, in conservation methods, introducing new technologies for monitoring, and advising the establishment of additional protected areas.
The I-Kiribati are always willing to lend a helping hand and are very family-oriented. Most people live in small huts made from palm leaves, and occasionally you will see larger communal structures of cinderblock or corrugated metal. The nicest buildings on the islands are churches and schools, most paid for by aid organizations from New Zealand, Australia, China, and Taiwan. There is a strong dichotomy between the more industrialized and heavily populated South Tarawa and the more traditional rural North Tarawa.
The horizon off the southern tip of Tarawa is dotted with long-lining and purse-seining vessels from all over the world. Remnants from World War II can be seen in the rusted guns and bunkers along the beaches of South Tarawa. Young men often fish in the lagoon with large gillnets, but they typically catch more trash than fish. Marine debris is an overwhelming threat that can be seen all over the island. Aside from one large dump provided by the New Zealand Aide Programme that rising seas encroach upon, there is no effective method to store or dispose of trash on Tarawa. Most of it ends up back in the water and on the beaches. It was a disconcerting experience to be in the middle of the South Pacific and not be able to get in the water because of debris and pollution.
During our time in Kiribati, Tropical Cyclone Pam came tearing southward past Tarawa and between Fiji and Vanuatu, eventually growing to a Category 5 storm. Most of the island of Tarawa is less than three meters (9 feet) above sea level and only a few hundred meters wide. The entire country, including the 50,000 people living on Tarawa, is facing the harsh realities of sea-level rise and potential future migration. These islands have been home to native Micronesians for thousands of years, and they have a long history of occupation by a variety of countries and cultures - but nature could soon make the abandonment of these islands permanent.
From a scientific perspective, it was a sobering experience to be on an island like Tarawa during one of these episodes of high storm surge, tides, and winds. The staff of our motel constructed a cinderblock wall in a matter of hours to keep the flooding at bay. Huge chunks of the main causeway connecting the southernmost part of the island, where ships normally deliver necessities such as food and petroleum, to the rest of Tarawa were falling into the ocean. People were constantly filling sand bags just to get some reinforcement and protection for the coastline and failing infrastructure. As potholes flooded and expanded, the dirt roads quickly turned into valleys and mountains. The heavy rain lasted for about half of our trip, but we were still able to visit most of the main offices we were hoping to. Despite the damage no one was seriously injured in Tarawa, but the storm claimed over a dozen lives in Vanuatu.
As a scientist living in the United States, I realize it is easy to say that a pristine area in a faraway part of the ocean should be protected. In practice, it is critical to understand what goes into that decision, how science can and should help inform the process, and where that initiative fits in the priorities of the country. On the day we left, we had a meeting with Ratita Bebe, a Wildlife Officer at the Environment and Conservation Division, who had been an integral part of our pre-trip logistics. As we left, she thanked us for our time in the island.
“We are a remote and tiny nation, and it is difficult to get people to take interest in us,” she said.
Bebe and others have mentioned that scientists don’t usually take the time to meet with the managers in Kiribati face-to-face to share their findings and work together, a failure of communication that is common worldwide. We still have a long way to go but are already looking forward to the next steps, such as having Scripps participate in management workshops in Kiribati, producing outreach materials, developing training in management techniques, and potentially developing a more formal partnership for Scripps to assist with conservation in Kiribati in the future. It was extremely rewarding and a privilege to be an ambassador of Scripps and to see our science becoming available and useful on the ground, thousands of miles from our home in San Diego.
Taylor Maddalene is a Master of Advanced Studies student with the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation in the laboratory of marine ecologist Stuart Sandin