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Palau – where size doesn’t matter

20 July 2014
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Leading the world in environmental protection

Not counting the 400 or so volcano-uplifted little limestone islands that make up the spectacular Rock Islands, Palau is small. With a population of 21,000 living in the islands’ 16 states, the island republic does live up to the Greek meaning of the name of the cultural grouping it belongs to, that of Micronesia. However being tiny does not matter when it comes to marine conservation or in the protection of the environment. In fact in the sphere of sustainable development, the republic of Palau is a giant.
Consider this: In 2003, long before marine conservation became fashionable, Palau put into place a very innovative plan to protect the islands’ fragile biodiversity. Each private owner of land, a community or state can apply to be part of the Protection Area Network, agreeing to work towards conserving their natural resources in their demarcated protected areas.

In 2005, two years later, Palau took the lead in establishing the Micronesian Challenge. This initiative announced on November 5, 2005 by Palau President Tommy E Remengesau Jnr aims to conserve at least 30 per cent of near-shore marine resources and 20 per cent of the terrestrial resources. It was a hard act to follow and in no time, neighbour Micronesian countries of the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and the American territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas have joined the Micronesia Challenge. Put together, this means a combined region of nearly 5 per cent of the marine area of the Pacific Ocean and 7 per cent of its total coastline.

Not so long after, indeed three months later, Palau raised the conservation bar, yet again. This time President Remengesau in March 2006 signed into law a ban against bottom trawling in Palau waters. Indeed, this ban also covers citizens of Palau who may be involved in this type of destructive fishing anywhere in the world. Offenders face both civil and criminal penalties. “We are legislating out of a responsible concern for our seas and seabed and their vulnerable coral habitats and deep water fishstocks.” Palau’s President said then. “If these measures are good enough for our own waters, what is the excuse for so disrespecting the waters beyond? It is time now to bridge the gap for the deep seas.”

Three years on, in 2009, Remengesau was no longer in office. But the push towards marine protection continued unabated. On September 25 of that year, President Johnson Toribong announced at a meeting of the United Nations the creation of the world’s first shark sanctuary in Palau. From that date, the fishing of sharks in Palau’s 600,000 square kilometres of ocean was outlawed. This effectively means that in an ocean the size of France, sharks of all species can roam freely and unharmed. This shark sanctuary earned the island nation the Future Policy Award from the World Future Council.

In 2013 Remengesau was back in the high office of the Presidency of Palau. If critics thought that the conservation threshold had been reached or the political will to do so had been exhausted, they were in for a surprise. Addressing a United Nations conference on oceans February of this year, President Remengesau announced the impossible: a total ban against commercial fishing in all of Palau’s waters.

“A stand-alone SDG (strategic development goal) is the best way to tackle the interconnected issues of the oceans environment and our best chance to align all stakeholders to make progress on the commitments the international community has already made,” Remengesau told the UN conference last February. “Until the international community can agree on a holistic SDG-type framework and implement programmes to reverse the devastation to our oceans and seas, I will work to close Palau’s waters to commercial fishing.

“Make no mistake, this is not an effort to lock up Palau’s waters and throw away the key. Like a Bul, ending commercial fishing will give nature a chance to heal from what the scientists are telling us is the damage caused by the intensive fishing pressures. A bul is similar to a taboo, a practice of many Pacific Island communities in which land or the sea becomes no taker zones for a certain period of time. It will also release the vast potential of our waters to provide more food for our people, more fish for the region, and to grow Palau’s economy. These objectives - environmental health, food security, and economic growth - are the very essence of Sustainable Development.”

“Local chiefs did not know the science of their environment, but they lived in harmony with their surroundings,” President Remengesau told that UN meeting. “They understood that the people’s health and prosperity rose and fell with the ocean’s tides. When resources became scarce, they declared a bul- what we might today refer to as a moratorium. Reefs would be deemed off limits during spawning and feeding periods so that the ecosystem could replenish itself and fish stocks would remain abundant.

“Certain areas, like Ngirukuwid (in Palau), were given permanent protection because of their important biodiversity. The goal was not conservation for its own sake, but to restore the balance between people and nature. The best science now confirms that our approach to managing the oceans is sound. The traditional ethos of the Bul is enshrined in Palauan law: Article 6 of Palau’s Constitution requires Palau’s government to “take positive action” to conserve “a beautiful, healthful and resourceful natural environment.”

While the plan to outlaw commercial fishing in all of Palau’s waters is just that, a plan for now, and that any ban will have to get the endorsement of the republic’s Congress, Remengesau no doubt has worked it all out. Two main factors seem to be influencing his thinking: the constant pressure commercialisation has brought to bear on our environment, and the need for a good strategic development goal, or SDG that he spoke about at last February’s United Nation conference.

“The international community has allowed fish stocks to plummet,” Remengesau. “Once thought to be limitless, more than 80 percent of global fish stocks are now fully or overexploited. Reckless and destructive fishing practices, overfishing, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing have robbed us of our resources. They must be stopped.

“Pollution is saturating our waters. The Pacific is home to a plastic gyre inconceivable in its size. Remote parts of Palau - areas uninhabited for centuries - are littered with someone else’s garbage. Ocean acidification and bleaching are decimating coral reefs and coastal habitats that once teemed with life.

“Climate change is causing the seas to rise at unprecedented rates, increasing the intensity of storms.

In the last two years, two of the most powerful storms in history, Bopha and Haiyan, have decimated our shores. Haiyan displaced the entire population of our northern state of Kayangel. People from that island will not return to their homes for at least a year.

“Palau is north of the Pacific typhoon belt, so we have never experienced these disasters before. We are grateful to our partners for helping to clean up and rebuild. But we know that these disasters will continue and will likely get worse. If our partners really want to help, they should reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions and agree to an international agreement that will protect Palau’s future.”

For him tourism and not fishing is the best strategic development goal for Palau. The numbers seem to indicate this too. A study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science in 2011 estimated that a single reef shark contributed almost US$2m in its lifetime to the economy of Palau. In one year, some US$18m is earned from the shark tourism business, about 8 per cent of the island’s gross domestic product.

“You might wonder how closing our waters to lucrative commercial fishing will help Palau’s economy grow. The answer is simple: Palau’s economic potential lies in tourism, not tuna. Tourism, in fact, already provides more than half of our GDP, and it depends upon our pristine marine environment.

“Palau’s homes and villages are beautiful places, but it is our pristine reefs, our sharks, our Rock Islands, and our beaches that more than 100,000 tourists a year come to experience. If we can grow that sector sustainably, we can replace lost income from fishing while preserving the marine environment, which is our heritage.

What we need are the right partners to help make this Bul effective and enforceable. We hope to access technology to monitor illegal vessels in our waters. And we need to measure the rising tides so that we can prepare for and respond to extreme weather, and avoid disaster when the coming storms pass through.”

By Samisoni Pareti
Islands Business Magazine July cover story

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