Not ready to accept this setback, I was heartened to see lots of reef fish and vibrant corals growing up through the rubble—early signs of recovery. Was it possible that the reefs of the Phoenix Islands, like their mythical namesake, were rising from the ashes of a terrible warming?
Ten years ago, I'd flown to Tarawa, capital of the Micronesian country of Kiribati, which includes the Phoenix Islands, to meet with government officials. At the time, the airport terminal was no bigger than a house, open-air with a thatched roof. I was met at the fisheries ministry by David Obura and Sangeeta Mangubhai of CORDIO, an Indian Ocean conservation organization, who had helped me carry out the first systematic underwater surveys of the Phoenix Islands. An ancient air conditioner rattled away in the meeting room as we presented a slide show to the ministers of fisheries and environment, showing them scenes of sharks, flourishing coral, and dense clouds of colorful fish. Accustomed to the degraded reefs closer to their towns and villages, the ministers and their staff were as amazed as we had been at the "like new" reefs of the Phoenix Islands.
"Do you realize, Greg, that you're the first scientists who ever bothered to come tell us what they learned in our waters?" said Tetebo Nakara, then minister of fisheries.
During our subsequent talks with government officials, we found out that a fourth of Kiribati's income ($17 million in 2000) came from selling access to their reef fish, sharks, tunas, and other wild marine resources to nations such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States. In return for a commercial fishing license, a foreign company paid about 5 percent of the wholesale value of anything they took out of Kiribati waters.
I asked Nakara if Kiribati might consider receiving a payment in lieu of the access fees to leave the fish in the water. That way, it would receive badly needed income, but its underwater haven would be preserved. Without living reefs, these islands could rapidly erode. He smiled and said, "This could be good for Kiribati"—as long as his nation could keep receiving income from the "reverse fishing license." Anote Tong, Kiribati's president, enthusiastically backed the project and has since led it to fruition.