A Few Sharky Places

by Jill Harris, member of the Benthic Team

A reef shark in the Phoenix Islands that lie within the large marine protected area established by the Republic of Kiribati in 2006 and 2008. Photograph by Stuart Sandin.

We pulled up to our dive site at Jarvis this morning and, like every other morning, Gareth jumped into the water to set the anchor. This time, however, his head popped back up: “Hey, it’s pretty sharky down here.”

Everyone talks about how many sharks there are at Kingman Reef, one of the first stops of this trip. It’s time that Jarvis should be given its rightful place in the shark rankings. The reef here is, indeed, pretty sharky. It is also very fishy: schools of big jacks, clouds of colorful anthias, and bright angelfish hiding behind coral heads. And it is coral-ly, if I can coin that word. Essentially every surface available on the bottom is covered in living, multicolored coral.

One reason Jarvis, Kingman, and Palmyra are so different from all the other reefs we are visiting, as well as from most reefs around the world, is that these three islands are all protected areas. All three are owned by the US and lie within the newly-created Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, a 86,000 square mile reserve in the mid-Pacific. Within its boundaries, all fishing is banned within 50 miles of the shore. Access to the islands themselves is strictly controlled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, thus providing a refuge for the countless seabirds sitting and nesting here. Except for occasional visits from scientists to study the reefs and curious looks from passing sailors, these places remain essentially apart from all human activities.

There are marine reserves of all shapes and sizes throughout the world established to protect corals, mangroves, rocky shores, deep water habitats, etc. Sometimes people are allowed to visit, and sometimes no one can set foot (or fin) within their boundaries. Reserves are created to protect important things such as fish stocks, biodiversity, and historical shipwreck sites, and they are almost always beautiful, unique places.

Sharks are not the only large marine animals that benefit from the Phoenix Island protected area. Photograph by Stuart Sandin.

Even when compared to such unique places, the Pacific Remote Islands reserve stands out. The six Line Islands we are visiting on this expedition are all physically similar, but visiting Fanning (Tabuaeran), Washington (Teraina), and Christmas (Kiritimati) Islands makes it clear that even a small number of people can have a big impact. By fishing and pollution, these small island communities have degraded their coral reefs, making them now very noticeably different from the reefs within the protected reserve.

If these small communities of people have such major impacts, imagine what has happened to the oceans in the rest of the world. More than half of the global population lives within 50 miles of the shore. All of our activities, from fishing and oil drilling to fertilizing our lawns and driving our cars, eventually degrade the oceans. Many people are working hard to restore the beaches and near-shore waters close to these populated areas.

Fortunately there are a few coral reefs on the planet that have remained largely untouched by people so far. Certainly, it is worth protecting the last few sharky places that still exist—Kingman, Palmyra, and Jarvis among them.