On New Year’s Day 2015, as celebratory fireworks erupted around the world, a quieter but no less explosive change was happening in Kiribati. After years of planning, the central-Pacific nation finally instigated a complete ban on all fishing within a 157,000-square-mile area of ocean, equivalent in size to California. This area—the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA)—had enjoyed limited (and controversial) protections since 2008. But the upgrade of 2015 turned it into one of the biggest protected areas on the planet, and arguably one of the most lauded. Here was a place where some 500 fish species could swim untroubled. Here was a sign of humanity’s growing commitment to protecting the oceans.
But the lead-up to this upgrade was a long one, full of the usual gauntlet of debates, public meeting, and blue-ribbon panels. Those discussions had been going on since at least the fall of 2013—and that gave fishers time to react. By analyzing ship movements, Grant McDermott from the University of Oregon and Kyle Meng from the University of California at Santa Barbara have shown that fishing intensity more than doubled in the site of the future reserve in the run-up to 2015. The damage was equivalent to fishing continuing for another year and a half after the ban took effect. The path to fully protecting PIPA triggered a preemptive race to yank as many fish from its waters as possible before the opportunity to do so closed for good.