Palau’s waters contain some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity. You can find hundreds of coral species in the reefs around alau, including endangered Napoleon wrasses and critically endangered hawksbillsbill turtles.
It is an archipelago with over 300 beautiful tropical islands that rise out of the Pacific. The government has made great efforts to safeguard its natural treasures. In 2009, it forbade the commercial fishing of sharks, creating the world’s first national shark sanctuary. Protected species include bumphead parrotfish, dugongs, and bumphead parrotfish. Tourists have to pay a $100 green fee on entry to the country to support local conservation, and sign a pledge written by the children of Palau to “tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.” Sunscreen that has ingredients that are toxic to reefs is banned.
The Palau National Marine Sanctuary is perhaps the most important conservation effort. Any kind of extractive activity, including fishing, has been banned in the PNMS, an area bigger than California, which comprises 80% of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), since January 2020. These so-called “extractorial activities” can be prohibited in the PNMS, which is larger than California and covers 80% of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). marine protected areas (MPAs)These are not only important in protecting biodiversity and ecosystems; they also help to combat climate change. They can stop the release of seafloor carbon through activities such as trawling, resource extraction or mining.
But the future of the PNMS—one of the largest marine protected areas in the world—looks uncertain. The government is now considering reducing the size of the PNMS to as little as 30% of the EEZ, in an attempt to increase economic activity to ease the hit COVID-19 has had on the country’s finances.
Palau’s struggle highlights questions of justice that countries around the world are facing as they grapple with how to balance biodiversity protection and climate action with economic growth: What contributions should developing nations have to make to protect biodiversity and the climate? Should they take a hit to their economic development, when climate change caused mostly by the world’s largest emitters, is the source of many of the ocean’s problems? Meanwhile, a global goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans means Palau is doing far more for ocean protection than most countries.
“Save our sanctuary!”
Palau has been roiled by heated discussions about the plans to decrease the size of PNMS. Several dozen youth activists and environmentalists, as well as fishermen, protested the possible reduction of the PNMS at the Our Ocean Conference in Palau, which brought together hundreds of businessmen, activists and officials from all over the globe. “Save our sanctuary! We know you can do it,” they shouted as diplomats arrived in their black SUVs. “Fishermen Want the Sanctuary,” and “People Not Profit,” their signs read.
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One petition to protect the sanctuary has gathered 2,600 signatures (about 14% of Palau’s population). The country’s Council of Chiefs, a group of traditional chiefs that advises the president, opposes the plan to roll back the sanctuary, which was designed with the indigenous practice of “bul”-which calls for a moratorium on the use of resources to prevent damage to a habitat or species–in mind. Tommy Remengesau Jr. was the ex-president and has criticised the plan to repeal one of his key policies. He also claimed the foreign fishing lobby tried to persuade national leaders not to fish again in Palau. According to Island, several local NGOs and the Palau Chamber Of Commerce protested the plan at the March public hearing. Times.
At the Our Ocean Conference in Koror (Palau) on April 14, 2022, Surangel Whipps Jr. was president of Palau.
Jesse Alpert—U.S. Department of State/Republic of Palau
But Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr., who took office a year after the PNMS was enacted, and several others in the government want to reduce the size of the PNMS. Whipps says he’s committed to protecting at least 30% of the EEZ, but the country needs to find a better balance between protection and production. Tourism, which accounted for almost 50% of Palau’s GDP before the pandemic, has not yet made a comeback in a meaningful way. Palau’s GDP dropped by 17% in 2021, according to the Asia Development Bank. A report by the Ministry of Fisheries, Agriculture, and Environment claims that bans on fishing have cost Palau $1.8million. While environmentalists claim the PNMS has led to tens and millions of dollars worth of grants and donations for conservation, others in government say that it is going to non-profits and not state governments.
“These kids protesting…they say, ‘We want 80% and you’re bad, Mr. President. You’re bad because you’re trying to come up with a better plan,’” Whipps says. “But they forget that what their protest[s are] saying is, ‘We don’t want money for our school lunch program. We don’t want money to pay our teachers.’”
Whipps claims that the PNMS had unintended effects, such as the closing of a foreign-run fishery, which paid taxes and employed local workers. It also provided Palau cheap protein sources by selling low-grade tuna locally. After the ban, foreign commercial fishing vessels that could fish offshore for species like skipjack and yellowfin left Palau’s waters, causing a shortage of tuna in the local market.
Now, he says, the country needs to do marine spatial planning—a process of analyzing and deciding what activities should be allowed in what space—to determine how to use their resources properly. “A lot of times people get hung up on numbers—80%, 30%. It shouldn’t be about numbers, it should be about the right size, the most effective way to do it,” he says. “And then when you have these areas, they gotta be durable, and they gotta get the financing that sustains them.”
On April 13th, 2022, protesters gathered outside of the Our Ocean Conference in Koror (Palau).
But some Palauans say that’s short-sighted, and some local fishermen say they are making progress on developing local tuna fishing capabilities following the departure of foreign fishing boats. “We have just started and we are growing. It is only the pandemic that is keeping us from expanding…Again, please don’t open to foreign fishing boats,” Elia Yobech, who works for Belau Offshore Fisheries Inc., and fishes for tuna, among other species, said at a public hearing on the matter in March, according to the Island Times.
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“A much higher standard than the rest of the world?”
Only about 2% of the world’s oceans are covered by “no-take” MPAs that ban fishing, mining, drilling, and other extractive industries, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But there is an international push to protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030 (commonly referred to as “30×30″). Because the ocean acts as an important carbon and heat sink, it helps to maintain a stable global climate. This protection is essential for the survival of most of Earth’s life forms.
Palau and other Pacific islands have fared better than the rest in these protection efforts. Palau is the first to reserve 80% of its waters while the rest are trying to preserve 30%. Many are asking why the poorer nations should be suffering economically for helping more people than countries that have greater resources. “That’s a question that some of us have asked ourselves,” says Steven Victor, Palau’s Minister of Fisheries, Agriculture and Environment. “Why are we being held to a much higher standard than the rest of the world?”
Victor believes that the 80% no take zone could be restricting efforts to develop the local fishery industry, which is essential for improving food security. He also questions the real impact of the PNMS on global tuna stocks. This highly migratory species requires a lot more protection than other species. “To this day, no one can really articulate what we are trying to protect within 80%. We’re simply saying, ‘The bigger the better.’ But at whose expense? The expense of the people of Palau.”
Whipps also agrees with Palau’s inequity to limit itself so severely. “Is the warming water Palau’s fault? No. It’s large emitters. So if you can’t change your behavior, then I guess you better come to the table and pay for what you can’t if you can’t change,” he says.
Palau is a member of the Commission of Small Island States (COSIS) on Climate Change and International Law, a group that seeks to hold the world’s largest emitters accountable for climate change-related destruction; COSIS aims to unite small-island countries to pursue climate judicial action through international courts.
Undated photo of Hawksbill Turtles, Eretmochelys inbricata bissa (German Channel, Micronesia and Palau).
Reinhard Dirscherl—ullstein bild/Getty Images
However, domestically there is uncertainty about the benefits of opening an EEZ.
“The people whose lives are dependent on the ocean are actually benefiting from the design of the MPA right now, but they’re not at the discussion table,” says Ann Singeo, of the Ebiil Society, an environmental NGO that works with local fishermen.
She says Palau’s fishermen have already noticed a positive impact from the PNMS. “They’re catching [fish] 2-5 miles outside of the reef now, before they’d have to go 15-20 miles out,” she says, explaining that only people who can afford fuel or have a certain type of vessel can travel this distance. “This bill is just basically going to give away the waters to foreign corporations again.”
Some Palauans believe that ocean protection is in their country’s DNA, in line with its cultural and traditional values, and that as a small-island developing state (SIDS) it should lead on climate efforts, given that SIDS are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
“Science tells us that our world has to fully-protect at least 30% of our world’s oceans by 2030 for life on our planet earth to survive. And yet we are nowhere near that target,” Palau’s Council of Chiefs wrote in a statement that appeared in the Ti BelauNewspaper during the Our Ocean Conference. They added: “Without MPAs like PNMS, it is not only Palau who is at risk but our entire world.”
As the muddled debate over the future of Palau’s sanctuary continues, that much is clear: The future of the oceans is at risk, and it puts the world’s climate goals in peril. But to truly protect the world’s oceans, the rest of the world will need to step up its action.
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