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Phoenix Corals

Phoenix Corals

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Wednesday, August 17, 2016/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, marine life, sustainability, environment, climate change

               Phoenix Islands Protection Area  (credit:Wikipedia, the New England Aquarium)

Like the mythical bird reborn from its own askes, coral reefs in the remote Phoenix Islands may be showing the way to recover from coral bleaching events. This is a hopeful sign if this resilience can be replicated elsewhere.

In 2008, Republic of Kiribati created the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) a series of reef sanctuaries stretching across their Pacific Ocean territory. .PIPA is the world’s first, deep-water marine protected area with an expanse of largely pristine mid-ocean, coral wilderness environments. Covering more than 150,000 square miles the protected area represents one of the last intact, coral island ecosystems on Earth. While the remoteness of this UN designated World Heritage Area has provided a high level of protection for marine species and corals, it has not been immune from coral bleaching. The deadly ecological event occurs when ocean temperatures increase above the tolerance of the coral animals causing them to expell their symbiotic algae partner, turning the corals ghostly white or grey.

According to the Kiribati Minsistry of the Environment that manages the reserve,

"in 2002 the Phoenix Islands experienced one of the hottest ever-recorded ocean warming events, followed by subsequent widespread coral mortality. Also, prior to the establishment of the marine reserve, the reefs suffered from illegal shark-finning fishing vessels."


                                Coral Reef Recovery Survey and Giant Clams, (credit: Phoenix Islands Protected Area gallery)

Since PIPA's establishment,

"expeditions to PIPA reefs have reported signs of coral recovery, including the resurgence of fast-growing species, evidence of new coral growth, and the continued persistence of fishes. Replenishment of reef sharks is evident in some island lagoons, which act as nursery habitats for sharks and other species."


The reefs in the marine protected area have not been subjected to other envirnonmental stressers like pollution from agricultural runoff or overfishing. What is unknown is if the recovering corals have adopted more heat-tolerant algae in a new ecosystem wide symbiosis that will withstand the increasing ocean temperatures. If not, future bleaching events could become permanent.



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