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An Ocean Pioneer: President Anote Tong

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I had the honor last week to present the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in National Stewardship of the Ocean to a longtime friend and the most visionary head of state I have ever known, His Excellency Anote Tong -- President of the Republic of Kiribati. This recognition is well deserved for President Tong; he has proven through global leadership, the power of a large ocean island state in managing a wealth of marine resources, and the positive effects it can have upon the health of its neighboring ocean waters.

Pronounced kirr-i-bas, it is a nation of coral atolls, seamounts and vast areas of high seas in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. It comprises of three distinct island-groups -- the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands and Line Islands -- that straddle the equator about halfway between Hawaii and Fiji. With a collective land area of just over 800 square kilometers (almost 300 square miles), the nation is the model of a large ocean island state, with an ocean territory that covers over 3.4 million square kilometers (Over 1.3 million square miles) of the Pacific Ocean. It is a nation of water, and President Tong has led the country by always recognizing his people's health, history, economies and well being is tied directly to the health of the sea.

In 2008, President Tong led the creation of one of the world's largest and most biologically rich marine protected areas, the 380,000 square kilometer (150,000 square mile) Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). It was later inscribed by UNESCO as the largest and deepest world heritage site in 2010. In addition to PIPA he has also been the leader in another significant achievement, the establishment of the Pacific Oceanscape.

The Oceanscape covers nearly 40 million square kilometers (15 million square miles) -- that's over 7 percent of the Earth's surface! This region is home to thousands of beautiful and productive coral reefs, as well as the planet's largest remaining stocks of tuna, which provide approximately one-third of the world's catch of tuna and related species. It is also home to Pacific Islanders who depend on the ocean for their livelihood and survival, and whose lifestyles and cultures are inextricably linked to their island resources."

Recognizing the power and responsibility Kiribati and other ocean states in the Pacific Ocean have to protect their ocean resources, President Tong helped push the adoption of the Pacific Oceanscape framework that was first introduced at the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum in 2009. This 16-country agreement aims to protect and manage the world's largest ocean to restore and maintain its abundance.

President Tong is a man of great integrity, intelligence and warmth. He has been a critical partner to Conservation International in its work advising on the Oceanscape. He has also been my friend for over 10 years, since his nation first proposed using "reverse fishing licenses" to compensate the Kiribati government for halting the sale of fishing permits for the Phoenix Islands' pristine marine resources to foreign nations.

Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws and a passionate marine conservationist, was one of my dearest friends. Presenting an award in his name to the most visionary leader I have known, for work at the heart of Conservation International's efforts around the globe, is one of the great honors of my career. I salute President Tong and his fellow Benchley awardees, Wendy Benchley, the Blue Frontier Campaign, and all those who work tirelessly to protect our oceans for the well-being of humanity.

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