– Growing up in Palau in the western Pacific Ocean, Surangel Whipps Jr. played on the reefs and spearfished on an island teeming with birds, giant clams, fish, and turtles.
Today that has all changed as a result of growing sea level rise. Half of the turtle eggs nesting on beaches are not surviving because they are laid in the tidal zone and swallowed by the sea.
During the United Nations Ocean Conference in Portugal in June 2022, Whipps Jr., the President of Palau, emphasized the interconnectedness of the fate of the turtles, their homes, culture, and people, drawing global attention to the dire impact of climate change on this island nation that relies heavily on the ocean for its livelihood.
Protecting Palau’s Marine Treasures
The Pacific Ocean is the lifeblood of Palau, supporting its social, cultural, and economic development. Palau is an archipelago of over 576 islands in the western tropical Pacific Ocean. Its rich marine biota includes approximately 400 species of hard corals, 300 species of soft corals, 1400 species of reef fishes, and the world’s most isolated colony of dugongs and Micronesia’s only saltwater crocodiles.
Worried that the island would have no future under the sea, Palau has launched an ambitious Marine Spatial Plan (MSP) initiative for its marine ecosystems that are vulnerable to climate change and impacted by human activities such as tourism, fishing, aquaculture, and shipping. It will provide a framework for managing ocean and coastal resources in a way that balances economic, social, and environmental objectives. It also aims to minimize conflicts between different users of the ocean and coastal areas and promotes their sustainable use.
Marino-O-Te-Au Wichman, a fisheries scientist with the Pacific Community (SPC) and a member of the Palau MSP Steering Committee, explains that the initiative is particularly important for Palau due to the country’s dependence on the marine ecosystem for food security, livelihoods, and cultural identity.
“We recognize the critical role that MSP plays in the development of maritime sectors with high potential for sustaining jobs and economic growth,” Wichman said, emphasizing that SPC was committed to supporting country-driven MSP processes with the best scientific advice and capacity development support.
“The MSP can help balance ecological and economic considerations in the management of marine resources, ensuring that these resources are used in a sustainable way. Some of the key ecological considerations that MSP can help address include the conservation of biodiversity, restoration of habitats, and the management of invasive species. While on the economic front, MSP can help promote the sustainable use of marine resources: and promote low-impact economic activities such as ecotourism,” Wichman observed.
Climate Informed Decision Making
As climate change continues to impact ocean conditions, the redistribution of marine ecosystem services and benefits will affect maritime activities and societal value chains. Mainstreaming climate change into MSP can improve preparedness and response while also reducing the vulnerability of marine ecosystems.
“MSP can inform policy making in Pacific Island countries in several ways to support sustainable development, particularly in the face of climate change impacts. The MSP initiative launched by Palau encompasses a Climate Resilient Marine Spatial Planning project that is grounded in the most reliable scientific data, including climate change scenarios and climate risk models,” said Wichman, noting that the plan can help identify areas that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, movement of key tuna stocks and increased storm intensity.
Increasing the knowledge base on the impacts of a changing climate is necessary for policymakers to ensure the protection of ecologically important areas and the implementation of sustainable development strategies. This includes building strong evidence that takes into account the potential spatial relocation of uses in MSP, the knowledge of conservation priority species and keystone ecosystem components, and their inclusion in sectoral analyses to promote sustainability and resilience.
Although progress has been made in understanding the impacts of climate change and its effects on marine ecosystems, there is still a need for thorough scientific research to guide management decisions.
“At SPC, we are dedicated to supporting countries in advancing their knowledge of ocean science. Our joint efforts have paid off, as Palau has made significant strides in improving their understanding of the ocean and safeguarding its well-being. Through the Pacific Community Centre for Ocean Science (PCCOS), Palau and other Pacific countries are given support to continue promoting predictive and sustainable ocean practices in the region,” explained Pierre-Yves Charpentier, Project Management Advisor for the Pacific Community Centre for Ocean Science.
A Long-Term Commitment To Protect the Ocean
In 2015, Palau voted to establish the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, with a planned five-year phase-in. On January 1, 2020, Palau fully protected 80% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), prohibiting all forms of extractive activities, including mining and all types of fishing.
A Palauan legend is told of a fisherman from the village of Ngerchemai. One day the fisherman went out fishing in his canoe and came upon a large turtle and hastily jumped into the water after it. Surfacing for a breath, the fisherman realized his canoe wasn’t anchored and was drifting away. He then looked at the turtle, and it was swimming away. He could not decide which one he should pursue. In doing so, he lost both the canoe and the turtle.
Unlike the fisherman, Palau cannot afford to be indecisive about protecting its marine treasures, Whipps Jr. said: “Ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development is our collective responsibility.”