It’s easy to run into questions of scale when thinking about tiny Palau. Like many small island nations, Palau faces environmental burdens beyond its making. A perfect storm of overfishing, pollution, ocean warming, and acidification have put oceans – and the human and ecological communities that depend on them – at unprecedented risk.
To make matters worse, reaching across political boundaries to address the causes of these threats is exceptionally difficult. Solutions that seem like drops in the bucket from a scientific perspective can be enormous asks inside the arena of international environmental policy.
By proposing the world’s first National Marine Sanctuary, Palau hopes to narrow this “knowing-doing” gap. In an effort to act despite the international inertia regarding climate change and rapidly dwindling fish stocks, the nation has announced its intention to create the world’s first National Marine Sanctuary, which would ban commercial fishing within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The proposed Sanctuary would protect Palau’s 1,300 fish and 700 coral species, and ensure that its reefs maintain the ability to support the world’s greatest concentration of coral fish and invertebrates per square mile. Since an EEZ encompasses a 200-mile offshore radius, Palau’s proposed National Marine Sanctuary would include 230,000 square miles, to create a protected area roughly the size of France.
In addition to extending the physical footprint of Palau’s marine conservation efforts, the Sanctuary also has the potential shape Sustainable Development Goals focused on reversing declines in ocean health. Despite Palau’s status as a leader in environmental conservation – among other accomplishments, it has created the world’s first shark sanctuary, developed a national framework for community-based conservation, and implemented some of the world’s most stringent regulations outlawing bottom trawling – finding the international traction to address climate change and tighten international fishing regulations has proved difficult. During his address to the United Nations this February, Palau’s President, Tommy Remengesau, Jr., made this connection explicit, stating “the ban would last until world leaders ‘implement programs to reverse the devastation to our oceans and seas.’”
An evolving economic relationship with the sea may help Palau take this harder line on restricting access to its waters. While cutting ties with industrial fishing operations could hurt its economy, the nation is betting that the benefits of protecting tourism will outweigh the tax losses from a fishing ban. In the words of Carl Safina, the “tuna, sharks, and other fish in Palau are worth much more alive than dead.” Tourism supports 56 percent of Palau’s gross domestic product. Its pristine reefs, Rock Islands, and marine lakes draw more than 100,000 tourists to the nation each year, providing economic benefits marked enough to change the fate of specific species. A 2011 study found that a live reef shark contributes almost two million dollars to Palau’s economy over its average 16-year lifespan. In contrast, the harvest of a shark’s fin offers a one-time payment of a few hundred dollars.
A reef shark contributes almost two million dollars to Palau’s economy over its average 16-year lifespan.
There has been some speculation that the ban’s most damaging economic losses could take the form of reduced financial support from Japan and the United States. Both nations have provided funding for crucial fisheries data collection, and both currently hold fishing contracts with Palau. Perhaps in an effort to guard against the bind this could create, Palau is turning to funding mechanisms as pioneering as the conservation work it hopes to achieve.
On July 23, Palau became the first nation to launch a campaign on Indiegogo, a crowd-funding platform more synonymous with budding entrepreneurs and independent filmmakers than with environmental public interest goals. Stand with Palau aims to fund the Sanctuary’s monitoring and enforcement activities. Michael K. Dorsey, Interim Director of Energy and Environment at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, notes that this use of social media is groundbreaking in a number of ways. In addition to tapping new revenue streams, the campaign also enables the wider Palau community – people across the world who “applaud Palau’s actions” and care deeply about this place – to support the islands’ protection, even if they live miles away. NGOs focused on environmental conservation and visitors eager to preserve the nation’s unique natural heritage are among the donors that have helped Stand with Palau raise $38,515 of its initial $100,000 goal.
If the campaign meets this target by its September 21 deadline, it will fund the continued collection of fisheries data collection by local fishermen, who would maintain fishing access under the proposed Sanctuary. “The data is less about the collapse of fisheries – which everyone agrees is happening – and more about monitoring different kinds of ecological responses to the Sanctuary,” Dorsey said.
Palau, in other words, would be able to contribute a unique data set about the impact of protected areas, to help guide its own and other marine conservation efforts. The campaign also hopes to generate enough revenue to ensure that eco-tourism remains environmentally sustainable, and to research the use of unmanned technology, such as drones, to monitor illegal fishing in Palau’s waters. At the moment, Palau’s single patrol boat faces steep odds against preventing illegal harvesting in protected waters; unmanned technology could help level this playing field.
After Palau created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2001, 10 countries established similar reserves, building a 4.9 million square-mile network of protected areas.
The conservation community hopes – and the tuna industry worries – that National Marine Sanctuaries will have a similar effect in changing the balance of protected ocean territory. After Palau created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2001, 10 countries established similar reserves, building a 4.9 million square-mile network of protected areas that safeguard sharks and other marine life. If enough nations follow suit again, Palau’s sanctuary could trigger an even more extensive network of protected areas. Since EEZs extend 200 miles out from a nation’s coastline, even the participation of a few small island nations could create vast new stretches of reserves.
Given the implications of effective protected areas, the Sanctuary’s potential “domino effect” has generated almost as much excitement and speculation as the reserve itself. Fisheries sit on the edge of a frightening precipice: 87 percent of global stocks are fully- or over-exploited. Protected areas cover just over 2 percent of the world’s oceans, despite an international goal of 10 percent. The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) found that only 2 percent of the 178 countries it researched met goals for reducing the intensity of gear used to harvest fish off the coastal shelf. Due in part to a lack of reliable data and monitoring from countries, none of the 178 nations the EPI considered met the report’s targets for sustainably managing fish stocks.
Protected areas do not always deliver better outcomes than unprotected ones.
Perhaps more discouragingly, protected areas do not always deliver better outcomes than unprotected ones. A recent study found that marine protected areas “often fail to reach their full potential,” due to illegal or detrimental harvesting, or to the migration of marine life outside of reserve boundaries. Successful protected areas shared five distinguishing characteristic: a strict – and strictly-enforced – no-take policy; a large area, spanning at least 100 square kilometers; isolating features, such as deep water or sand buffers; and an age of at least 10 years. Fifty-nine percent of the protected areas the study surveyed lacked most of these characteristics, and “were not ecologically distinguishable from fished sites.”
Despite the many challenges facing the establishment of protected areas, when done right, they make a real difference. Successfully conserved areas produce significantly more large fish species and biomass than fished areas. By enabling exhausted fisheries to recover, they also generate healthy fish that “spill over” into fished zones, supporting the long-term interests of the fishing industry.
While Palau’s future still hangs in the balance of forces outside of its control, its bold vision of a National Marine Sanctuary has the potential to spark real progress towards fisheries recovery. The proposed reserve’s large size and Palau’s track record in ocean conservation all bode well for its success. However, while the Sanctuary allows Palau a new degree of leverage in discussions on fishing takes and practices, some realities of scale remain. Enforcing a fishing ban across such an ambitious area poses a daunting challenge for a small island nation. Palau’s bold conservation model both works around the slow pace of international policy, and demonstrates the need to galvanize these discussions to achieve larger ocean conservation goals.