Partnership in Marine Conservation

September 23, 2009
"The oceans sustain all life on this planet; they connect every human community and unfortunately transport our garbage beyond the horizon. " - Jean-Michel Cousteau

September 23, 2009 marks an important step towards long-term protection of our water planet. I am excited to learn about the partnership formed between two countries that manage two of the largest marine protected areas in the world. Together the United States and the Republic of Kiribati have formed a marine conservation partnership, creating an historic alliance to enhance management and protection of 25 percent of all marine protected areas.

In 2008 the Republic of Kiribati founded the Phoenix Island Protected Area. At approximately 158,500 square miles, this is the largest marine protected area in the world. Before this MPA was established, the largest MPA was an area that holds a special place in my heart, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, now known as Papahanaumokakea Marine National Monument.

In 2003 I led an expedition to this remote corner of the world; a 1,200-mile chain of islands and atolls that form one of the most remote places on Earth. For me and my 23 team members this voyage gave us a remarkable glimpse of an ecosystem largely untainted by direct human activity, but still impacted by the modern world far beyond the horizon. We studied and filmed a realm that is thriving in many respects, but teeters in a very precarious balance between boundless diversity and ominous destruction.

Sprawling north from the Hawaiians , the coral reefs along the NWHI live in a hostile environment. They are among the northernmost coral reefs on the planet and live in more temperate conditions than their southern relatives. The slightest change in climate affecting these "reefs on the edge" could alter everything. Ever present, unpredictable weather conditions also make this coral kingdom a city under siege.

On land, the story is much the same. These islands are a celebration of the uniqueness brought on by isolation, and those who are dedicated to protecting them; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, do their utmost to safeguard these terrestrial treasures. To prevent the introduction of new and intrusive species from microbes to foreign plants and insects, our crew literally had a set of brand-new clothes designated to wear on remote Laysan Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll and Mokumanamana. The clothes had to be frozen for 48 hours to kill any potential invaders, then worn only on that island. These are precautions most people think only apply to hospitals and sealed vapor locks of outer space, but this is the care we must take to keep one of the last remnants of a mostly intact ecosystem from fracturing forever.

In our PBS special, Voyage to Kure, we document the fact that the NWHI are healthy, but under attack. The main enemies are the byproducts of the human; marine debris that floats from thousands of miles away. We found a place that is fragile and where time is of the essence to correct reckless habits. But we are not too late.

The oceans sustain all life on this planet; they connect every human community and unfortunately transport our garbage beyond the horizon. Today's announcement of this historic alliance between the United States and the Republic of Kiribati sets the stage for future partnerships that need to be formed around the world to safeguard our water planet for future generations.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, President