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Conservation nation: How Palau protects its reefs and waters (commentary)

  • Author Ed Warner once spent 3 weeks in Palau as part of the ‘Micronesia Challenge’ to document how corals were rebounding after a bleaching event.
  • Warner recently returned to dive in Palau and writes that corals there continue to show strong recruitment and recovery, and that a strong conservation ethic has also taken hold in the human population.
  • The world’s coral reefs are under threat, both from increased ocean temperatures and from acidification due to the burning of fossil fuels.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not Mongabay.

In 2012 I spent 3 weeks in Palau as part of the ‘Micronesia Challenge,’ a conservation approach sponsored by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in conjunction with Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) and the University of Guam. TNC’s lead scientist, Rod Salm, had asked me, a geologist, to be his dive buddy to experiment in this citizen science.

Palau is made up of some 400 islands: mostly underwater limestone plateaus in the south, basaltic volcanos in the middle, and limestone atolls in the north. The governance mimics the USA: both federal and states (ten of them). The population is not much over 14,000, 2/3 of whom live in the capital and state of Koror.

Having just returned from revisiting Palau diving as a tourist this time, I spent a day with the director of TNC, Steven Victor, and Palau’s Assistant Attorney General, Orion Cruz.

I was curious to dive on some of the same sites as the 2012 research project, where we had discovered that many of the reefs that were badly bleached in 1998 and had subsequently turned to rubble by tide and storm waves, had made rapid, remarkable recoveries. How had they fared in the eight years between my visits, I wondered?

Branching Acropora corals in 2012. Photo courtesy of Rodney Salm.

You may have read about the imminent destruction of the world’s coral reefs, both from increased ocean temperatures and acidification. “What if,” Dr. Salm had mused, “we found the places around the tropics where reefs are still healthy, even with the bleaching and higher acidity. We could then reconsider how we protect areas – not because they are attractive to tourists, but for their natural resilience.”

In 2012, we found reefs that in 1999 were 100% rubble, in 2006 were covered in ‘recruits’ (baby coral), and which by 2012 were covered 30-75%, mostly by table corals (Acropora species). We had also found brightly colored coral varieties growing in the channels between the famous limestone islands of southern Palau where the water was more acidic than anything predicted for ocean acidity levels 100 years from now. The analysis from aquarium studies predicted that coral could not produce its stony skeleton (the mineral aragonite) at a low pH. Yet here in Palau, corals weren’t listening to the biologists.

See related: “Largest coral reef survey in French Polynesia offers hope

Every morning for 3 weeks in 2012, we left the boat dock at PICRC and motored over to “Fish-N-Fins,” a wonderful dive operation, to load up 18 tanks for our three dive teams. On the morning of day five, or was it day six, I was looking around the marina when a little light went on. As a kid, I had spent some time around marinas both on Long Island and southern Florida. Boat docks and marinas feature some of the dirtiest waters anywhere, and I was accustomed to seeing floating trash, fuel scum, gasoline rainbows, and always, trash along the shores.

There was none of that at “Fish-N-Fins.” The water was clear and clean, full of fish. The shore was spotless. Nothing floating or bobbing the water. A short video flashed in my head: the day before, we passed a boat heading north that, all of a sudden, stopped, as someone on board leaned over the side and fished an object out of the water, a plastic bottle. I jumped onto the dock where Tova, one of the F-N-F owners, was standing.  “How come the marina is so clean?” I asked, and got an extended explanation.

Palau faced a crisis, she’d said. Growing water tourism was producing a rapid increase in trash on the waters and shorelines. If it were America, we would have demanded punishment: laws, fines, lawsuits, political activism, blame. But this being Palau, the country’s leaders, members of the legislature, and local chiefs showed up at the elementary schools where they explained that it was up to every Palauan to keep the country clean.

Ed Warner counting coral recruits in a quadrat during 2012 reef survey. Photo courtesy of Rodney Salm.

Micronesian law (known as the bul – like Polynesian kapu) had already been combined with western governance, making principal chiefs responsible for local environmental health – from the top of the hills to the lagoons and reefs in front of the villages. The children went home and explained what was needed to their parents. Local village meetings mobilized the population, as everyone was responsible for picking up after everyone else.

Palauans live on – and from – their waters, so nobody would leave floating trash to someone else. Furthermore, combining the bul with western science and conservation rules works. If you’re caught breaking the fishing rules, your auntie, of the hereditary chieftain lineage, would smack you across your head. While Palau has male chiefs, they descend from a female lineage. In this small country, everyone knows what anyone is doing, and aunties are the ‘enforcers’.

I learned another lesson after our first meeting in which we explained our research program to Palauan leaders. It seems every meeting in Palau is followed by a meal. My kind of people: live to eat, don’t eat to live.

I found an empty chair and plopped down next to the second principal chief. Palau’s parallel government means that the first and second principal chiefs, who represent the bul, work directly with the president. I introduced myself and made a foolish statement, something like: “I think your local knowledge is really important to marine conservation.”

The chief gave me a stare and said, “We’re sending our young people to college in marine and other areas of science. We expect them to return and lead our conservation efforts.” I was impressed, but not fooled. I’ve worked in the developing world and respect local knowledge. I suspected that Palauans would find a way to combine the two knowledge systems.

Find more coral reef coverage here

Humphead wrasse. Photo courtesy of Rodney Salm.

I got an example a few days later when talking with Yim Golbuu, executive director of PICRC. He explained how the bul and western science work together. “Fisheries biologists discovered the aggregation of groupers, they come together to spawn in large schools every summer around the same date. Western scientists then realized that the Palauan bul had already prohibited the fishing for grouper for the two weeks before and after the aggregation event. Using science, we focused on the aggregation locations and extended the no-fishing time to six weeks. We have protected our fish populations using local knowledge combined with science.”

Steven Victor of TNC updated me on our day out on the water in Northwest Palau. “The village system had broken down somewhat. Overfishing was affecting grouper populations, especially pressure from the Chinese to buy Palauan grouper. Some of the grouper aggregations has been wiped out or greatly reduced.

We met with local fishermen and asked them what they wanted: more and bigger fish, naturally. Once they understood that they were catching smaller fish which were not old enough to reproduce, they agreed to a 3-year fishing moratorium. The follow up was bigger, mature fish in the catch. Fishermen got it right away. Now we have fishing limits, protected areas, prohibition on fishing aggregations. Next came fishing for pelagic fish instead of reef fish. The more grazers like parrotfish on a reef, the more recovery of hard corals. The ecology and social benefits work together,” he explained (paraphrased from a longer conversation).

At Ulong Channel, the day after the new moon, we witnessed an aggregation of bumphead parrotfish spawning. Bumpheads are the giants amongst parrotfish: large females run up to 100kg, males 200kg. Between 500 and 1,000 of these massive fish were having sex, unmolested by fishermen. The only predator active during that dive were bull sharks, dangerous enough to give me, even after 1,000 dives, a serious adrenaline rush.

Branching and table Acropora corals in 2012 during reef survey. Photo courtesy of Rodney Salm

The grouper business may not sound like a big deal. It is. In the Bahamas after scientists discovered grouper aggregations and published their work, local fishermen used the knowledge to fish during the aggregations, destroying the populations of Nassau groupers and other fish stocks. Different culture, different outcome.

See related: Science-backed policy boosts critically endangered Nassau grouper

Here’s the news from 2020: reefs around Palau continue to recover. More slowly, naturally, as coral cover reaches equilibrium.  A great example (revisited from 2012) was a site called Peleliu coral garden.  Hard coral cover has reached well over 90%. Corals are now competing for space. That’s right, massive Porites that has regrown over patches killed in 1998 is now being killed by Acropora which is overgrowing the massive Porites in a slow-motion war. One coral poisoning a different species to gain space.

Palau has also now banned 10 different ingredients found in sunscreens. I thought the ban excessive (only zinc and titanium oxide are legal for use, and cover a tourist in white paste), but after discussing the reasoning with my new friend Orion, I have come around. If some of these questionable substances are found by science to be benign, well, the ban can be reversed.

Jellyfish Lake. Photo courtesy of Rodney Salm.

But for example, the famous Jellyfish Lake was being poisoned by sunscreen, so it was closed for several years to let it recover. I snorkeled there and can report that the jellyfish are now healthy and the experience is ‘zen.’

The next steps should be educating tourists about Palauan conservation, in which knowledge is king. After 2 weeks there, I returned to Denver without a suntan: I started wearing full body Lycra dive skins many years ago, keep my hands out of direct sunlight, and wear a hat when on a boat. My dermatologist is very happy with me.

Ed Warner is a member of the boards of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and of The Sand County Foundation, a Trustee for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, an Honorary Professor at Colorado State University, and the author “Running with Rhinos.” See more of his commentaries for Mongabay here.

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