• Description

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), one of the world's largest marine protected areas, represents 11% of the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Kiribati, which earns much of its GDP by selling tuna fishing licenses to foreign nations. We have determined that PIPA is a spawning area for skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), bigeye (Thunnus obesus), and yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) tunas. Our approach included sampling larvae on cruises in 2015–2017 and using a biological-physical model to estimate spawning locations for collected larvae. Temperature and chlorophyll conditions varied markedly due to observed ENSO states: El Niño (2015) and neutral (2016–2017). However, larval tuna distributions were similar amongst years. Generally, skipjack larvae were patchy and more abundant near PIPA's northeast corner, while Thunnus larvae exhibited lower and more even abundances. Genetic barcoding confirmed the presence of bigeye (Thunnus obesus) and yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) tuna larvae. Model simulations indicated that most of the larvae collected inside PIPA in 2015 were spawned inside, while stronger currents in 2016 moved more larvae across PIPA's boundaries. Larval distributions and relative spawning output simulations indicated that both focal taxa spawned inside PIPA in all 3 study years, demonstrating that PIPA is protecting viable tuna spawning habitat.

Evidence and patterns of tuna spawning inside a large no-take Marine Protected Area