The tiny tropical archipelago of Palau feels enormous responsibility for the health of the ocean.
It now compels all who visit it to share this as well.
Upon entry, travelers must sign a passport pledge to act in an ecologically and culturally responsible way on the island, for the sake of Palau's children and future generations of Palauans.
The guidance, agreed to by more than 750,000 to date, is simple. It includes “dos and don’ts” such as:
- Don’t touch or step on coral.
- Do wear coral-safe sunscreen.
- Don’t feed the fish and sharks.
- Do learn about the culture and people.
And even before they set foot on the island, visitors provide support through their airfares for the Palau National Marine Sanctuary and Protected Areas Network, which together support more than 47 million hectares of ocean – about the size of Paraguay.
Maderngebuked Tommy Remengesau Jr., Palau’s former president, told attendees at the IMPAC5 marine protected area congress that the Palau Pledge was a way to draw in more partners in taking care of the ocean, a priority for the people of Palau for thousands of years.
“It is our belief that if we are all on the same boat, and we paddle together in one direction, we go on our journey a lot faster,” he said.
Remengesau Jr. signed the Palau National Marine Sanctuary into law in 2015, making it one of the largest fully protected marine areas in the world. The development of the sanctuary, as well as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) regional fisheries mechanism that focuses on migratory tuna across it, were supported by the Global Environment Facility, which has been a long-term partner of Palau’s sustainability leadership.
The country is working with GEF support to help protect and ensure long-term conservation and sustainable use of highly migratory fish stocks in its waters, and across the Pacific Islands. An ongoing project, funded by the GEF and implemented by the UN Development Program and the Palau International Coral Reef Center, works to strengthen the sanctuary’s governance structure and develop a strategic plan for the sustainable management of the sanctuary and its domestic fishing zone.
The PNA brings together eight Pacific Island countries who collectively control around half of the global supply of skipjack tuna, the most commonly canned tuna, to sustainably manage tuna fisheries. The member nations agree to a limited number of fishing days for the year, based on scientific advice on the status of tuna stocks. Fishing days are then allocated by country and sold to the highest bidder, allowing Pacific Islanders to reap economic benefits from their sustainable management of tuna.
Remengesau Jr. said the decision to bar commercial fishing in 80 percent of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (an area of the ocean in which countries have jurisdiction of natural resources) and to allow domestic fishing in the remaining 20 percent, was built on traditional practices, which are in turn being celebrated by modern science.
“The concept of marine protected areas really was not born yesterday. This was an ongoing practice of our ancestors, not only Palau but really throughout the Pacific and throughout the world if you look at history,” Remengesau Jr. said, noting the Palauan idea of “Bul” means moratorium as well as conservation and respect.
“It says ‘don’t just think of yourself. Think of your children, think of your grandchildren, think of the next generation,” he said. “Sadly that is not being practiced today. Most of today’s population is thinking about ‘how can we make the most during our time on Earth?’ Because if we were really thinking about our children and the next generation, things would be very different.”
After years of over-fishing, fish stocks are beginning to show signs of a comeback in Palau, especially in areas near the marine protected areas. For local communities, this is a source of both hope and joy.
Lomalinda Gabriel, Conservation Officer with the Melekeok Conservation Network – Ngardok Nature Reserve, said the Protected Areas Network plays a nurturing, protective role for the country of Palau, similar to a mother caring for her children.
“The mom is thinking not only about her children, but about her grandchildren and great grandchildren and so on. It’s for the next generation, and the next, and the next,” Gabriel said. “We do this to support the livelihoods of the community.”
In addition to the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, the country is supporting the development and care for a series of 37 protected areas on and around its islands and is investing in wildlife law enforcement, including with a ranger police academy, and in community education and outreach.
With support from the Friends of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, children in Palau are also benefiting from the chance to learn to scuba dive and get to know life under the sea, alongside the tourists who signed the pledge that they helped to draft.
The Ebill Society, a community organization focused on environmental education in Palau, also runs youth camps and research programs focused on decolonizing social science.
“We are working to teach our own children to understand the changes that our country and society have gone through, and how that has changed how we interact with the ocean, the forest, and the land. We are working to develop the next generation of guardians for our home,” said Ann Singeo, the Ebill Society’s Executive Director.
High school students Kimie Singeo and Ngesur Victor, and Oregon State University environmental engineering student Iseko Willyander first met at one of these environmental camps in Palau where they learned about their ancestral traditions related to wildlife and the ocean, including practices that were disrupted when Palau was colonized by Japan and later by the United States.
Willyander said the concept of “Bul,” or fishing moratoriums, has a long history in her country. “Our ancestors had already installed this into the Palauan culture and way of life. It is intergenerational knowledge. It is nothing new to us,” she said.
“If Palau is able to prove that tuna do spawn in the waters of Palau, then we have created a spawning ground for the species that will eventually reach the rest of the Pacific islands,” said Ann Singeo, Executive Director of the Ebiil Society. “This is where you start to think about conservation that reaches beyond your borders, that helps other communities. Local decisions may have a regional impact.”
King Sam, Director of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, said there were many goals of this effort, including healthy ocean ecosystems, food security, and sustainable development.
He also noted that catches of yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna outside the no-take zone have been rising near the reserve, suggesting that there are positive spillover effects from creating safe spaces for even migratory marine species.
Scientists researching the protected area have found on underwater and seabed cameras that far more species exist there than were previously known, Sam said, noting for instance the presence of the Japanese sleeper shark outside of its known range.
“It tells us that there are a lot of things that we still don’t know about what is in these deep waters,” he said, noting that the work to sustain and monitor activity in the protected area was occurring due to partnerships with organizations including the Global Environment Facility. “These partnerships are the reason we are able to do this work and start collecting the data and answering the questions that we need to understand to better manage this space,” he said.
Remengesau Jr emphasized the importance of research into “the spillover factor” of marine protected areas, including for local artisanal and small-scale fishers.
“We are seeing it, we are proving it, that the closure of 80 percent of our marine sanctuary has actually translated into measurable positive things for the food security and for the economic security of Palau for that matter,” noting the critical role of tourism focused on scuba diving and nature. “It makes sense to say that people will not come to Palau if we have a destroyed ocean or a polluted ocean or we do not have the marine biodiversity system that we are so blessed to have.”
He also emphasized the importance of sharing Palau’s experience while learning from the experiences of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and elsewhere, as well as from countries such as the Bahamas and Mexico in dealing with sustainable fisheries and protection issues. “We have to learn from this. I hope you have learned something from what Palau is doing. It’s very simple, but it has really made an impact for us.”