By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown
The people of Palau, a small island nation in the northwestern Pacific, have long realized that the health and prosperity of their nation depends on the ocean. Because of this realization, Palauans have always worked to protect their ocean resources. That’s why Palau has drawn the world’s top scientists and ocean writers, and why Palau has repeatedly been rated the world’s top diving destination. When you go there, you see some of the healthiest, most accessible coral reefs and abundant reef-fish populations anywhere in the world.
In the old days, when fish in Palau would become scarce, they would declare a bul – today this is known as a fishing moratorium. Fishing was prohibited during spawning and feeding periods to allow the fish populations to recover, so they would remain abundant. The goal was always to restore balance between people and nature.
The idea is also ingrained in Palauan law, which calls for the government to take action to conserve “a beautiful, healthful, and resourceful natural environment.” Over the years, the Palauan government has taken many actions to do just this. Palau has protected its reef fishes from the export business that has destroyed fish populations on many other reefs, banned fishing with destructive bottom trawls, and created the world’s first shark sanctuary. Palau has also been an international leader for ocean conservation, calling on other countries to follow their lead and do more to protect the ocean that we all share¹.
These proactive conservation measures are why Palau has remained a tropical coral paradise, and one of the “last great places on earth,” according to National Geographic. Palau’s waters contain 1,300 different species of fish, 700 species of coral, and 130 rare sharks and stingrays. They have more coral fish and invertebrates per square mile of ocean habitat than anywhere else in the world.
Still, Palau has not been immune to the various threats facing our oceans, including commercial overfishing, illegal fishing, pollution, and rising ocean temperatures and seas. Fishermen have seen their fish decline and become smaller over the last decade. And recently large storms have decimated Palau’s shores.
So like in the old days, Palau is declaring a bul to give their marine life a chance to recover. But this time, the Palau president, Tommy Remengesau, is calling for a more drastic bul that would close all of Palau’s waters to commercial fishing. This would essentially turn Palau’s waters into a 230,000 square mile marine reserve, roughly the size of France. Locals and tourists would still be allowed to catch fish recreationally in waters close to shore.
President Remengesau’s proposal to close Palau’s waters to all commercial fishing is certainly bold. The waters of Palau contain vast amounts of bigeye and yellowfin tuna. Countries like Japan and Taiwan pay Palau so they can fish for tuna in their waters. Nevertheless, the president’s proposal would move them out of Palau, to international waters.
The president’s idea is extremely visionary. He understands that tuna, sharks, and other fish in Palau are worth much more alive than dead. Each year tourists from all over the world come to Palau to SCUBA dive in its bountiful waters. Eco-tourism accounts for over half of Palau’s GDP. President Remengesau believes that they can grow their tourism sector and replace lost fishing income, all while preserving Palau’s incredible marine life².
The creation of Palau’s marine reserve would also have larger global benefits for our marine environments. Ocean scientists have been saying that there is need for more marine reserves around areas of important biological diversity. And scientists say that marine reserves are most effective if they are large, isolated, and enduring. Marine reserves with these characteristics were found to have 840% more large fish mass and 1990% more shark mass compared to areas open to fishing³!
The world’s leaders have committed to conserving 10% of the world’s oceans in marine reserves to protect the diversity of ocean animals and habitats. Yet, so far we have only protected 2.8% of the ocean. The creation of Palau’s enormous marine reserve would move the world closer to its goal.
The reserve could also help Pacific tuna populations. Palau is a nursery area for tuna species, so protecting their waters would give young tuna a safe place to grow. This could result in healthier tuna for the Pacific and enhance fishing for tuna in waters outside Palau 4. Countries that now pay Palau for the privilege of taking tuna should perhaps pay Palau for the favor of producing and protecting more tuna.
But in order to enforce the fishing ban and make it effective, Palau will need help from other countries. Palau only has one boat to patrol its waters. There is technology available, such as surveillance drones, which could help Palau monitor its waters for illegal fishing, if they can get economic support 5.
We hope the U.S. and others will support Palau’s plans to close its waters to commercial fishing. Palau is doing what is necessary to secure their economy and secure food for its people. And this historic decision could have immense positive affects for our global oceans.
Palau is doing its part “to reverse the devastation to our oceans and seas.” And President Remengesau is calling on the world to join him. He says, “It doesn’t matter where you live around the world; we are all connected somehow and are impacted by what we do to the oceans and the health of the oceans and the seas.”