SEA Professor of Oceanography Jan Witting recently completed his 5th research expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) with SEA Semester class S-281, Protecting the Phoenix Islands. As a member of PIPA’s Scientific Advisory Committee, he will be contributing data collected on his voyages at a meeting of the PIPA Trust later this month.
Q: Jan, can you begin by briefly telling us more about both PIPA’s Scientific Advisory Committee and the PIPA Trust.
A: When the Phoenix Islands Protected Area was established in 2006, it was by an act of Kiribati parliament. In that legal framework, the PIPA Conservation Trust has the task of guiding and governing the operation and future development of PIPA, working with a broad array of international partners. The Trust oversees the funds that have been raised to help compensate Kiribati for lost fishing license revenue. Under the Trust, the PIPA implementation office (PIO) is a body whose job it is to implement the Trust’s decisions on the ground. The Science Advisory Committee (SAC) serves to inform both the PIO and the Trust to advise them of the current scientific understanding of a broad array of topics relevant to managing the ecosystems within PIPA. Members of the SAC come from many different disciplines and backgrounds, and some of us are involved in active research programs within PIPA.
Q: How much of the scientific data used by the Trust to develop conservation plans for PIPA comes from SEA Semester expeditions?
A: There has been quite a bit of research in PIPA. There have been repeated expeditions focusing on the coral reefs, expeditions concentrating on the terrestrial environment, and expeditions looking at the deep sea benthic communities. At SEA, we do something different. We have been the first and only player to develop a research plan and to sample the open ocean pelagic environment in a systematic way. Beyond that, we’re also the only organization that at this time conducts annual research cruises into PIPA. What SEA research contributes is unique, and as such is invaluable.
Q: Overall, what type of data do SEA Semester students collect in PIPA?
A: Our students help to collect data that include important aspects of ecosystem productivity (zooplankton and phytoplankton abundance and distribution), the physical and chemical structure of the water column, information on ocean currents, and abundance and distribution of larval fishes. Our students also routinely make observations on seabird abundance and diversity in the area.
Q: What have you discovered on your PIPA expeditions, and how is it helping the Phoenix Islands?
A: We’ve discovered that the Phoenix Islands are a tremendously dynamic region in the Pacific Ocean. We mapped a set of shallow sea mounts. We have started long-term time series observations on the abundance of larval tuna, something that will ultimately help PIPA and the larger conservation community to understand the effects of fishing closures on these highly migratory fish. We have also helped to document the effects of El Niño in PIPA, and our data is informing the interpretation of coral bleaching patters in the area. This is just the beginning, though; as our time series grows over the years, many other aspects of our data set will become invaluable in interpreting what changes are occurring in PIPA during this time of global climate change.
Q: Are you optimistic about the future of this UNESCO World Heritage site? Can lessons learned in PIPA help other ocean areas?
A: I’m very optimistic about the future of PIPA. My optimism is based on three things: First, the incredibly generous commitment that the Republic of Kiribati has made toward their own future and the future of our global ocean. There is a genuine spirit of pride in this small and under-resourced country that they have been able to make this gift to the world. Second is the large and active external community of interested people and institutions, among whom SEA is one. It’s a community of large conservation trusts, scholars, lawyers, and concerned citizens whose joint efforts will help guide PIPA’s future. Third, there is the Equatorial Ocean and this remarkable archipelago. PIPA exists on the boundary of one of the most dynamic current systems of the global ocean. During the global coral bleaching event of 2015/16, we saw reefs in PIPA that seemed unaffected by the warm temperatures. This area remains very remote and difficult to access—something that affords considerable protection in and of itself. PIPA is also large enough to incorporate waters within two different pelagic provinces (Equatorial and Tropical). Taken together, these factors create resiliency that makes me optimistic for the future.
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