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Environment

A tiny island is showing the world how to protect our oceans

Flickr: LuxTonnerre

Palau is a country the size of the US city of Philadelphia, yet it controls a swath of ocean that’s nearly as large as the state of Texas.

Policing that much ocean isn’t easy, especially when you have a marine police force of 18 people and 3 boats, only 1 of which can travel far into open waters.

Still, Palau has ambitious goals for protecting its waters and stopping poaching--after all, more than half of its GDP comes from ocean-related tourism.

Palau islandImage: Flickr: Syn

The success of Palau could be a road map for essential maritime protection activities around the world.

The archipelago nation has outlawed bottom trawling, the practice of scraping the ocean with a curtain-like net that destroys everything in its path. It created the world’s first shark sanctuary and requires all tuna longliners to have a person to monitor onboard.

More recently, in 2015, Palau established the largest no-take zone in the world: 193,000 square miles of ocean that cannot be fished, mined or drilled.

To support all of its efforts, Palau recruited a range of partners from commercial, nonprofit and governmental spheres. It also works with wealthy individuals interested in conservation and has even turned to crowdfunding for certain programs.

One collaborative effort involves a US-based nonprofit called SkyTruth. The organization monitors satellite data and relays suspicious poaching activity to the police force, which can then make strategically informed decisions with its scant resources.

Despite its efforts, some challenges can’t be overcome by a single country. They require global cooperation. 

Fish are not bound by a country’s jurisdictions--they travel wherever they want. So even if one nation could stop poaching in a certain area, poachers can just wait outside the protected area and take an unsustainable amount of fish.  

School of fish in PalauImage: Flickr: Albert

But poaching isn’t the biggest threat to fishing populations. More importantly, there’s the problem of overfishing by legal fishing vessels, which capture more than 80% of the world’s fish.

They have become so brutally effective at catching fish that aggregate fishing loads have grown nearly 6-fold since the 1940s, from 16.5 million tons to 94 million tons.

By using fish aggregating devices, or FADs, for example, fishing vessels can exploit fish tendencies such as a desire for shade to plunder populations no matter where they are set up.

This and other advanced tactics have left 90% of the world’s ocean stocks depleted or overexploited. Humans treat the oceans like they have infinite resources, but that illusion is being tested as fish vanish.

Palau is watching the effects of this up close.

While the country can stop fish from being taken from its waters, it can do nothing about the fish outside protected zones. Since there are no borders, Palau’s fish stocks eventually get leeched from the nearby fishing activities.

The nation is also facing pollution. A massive plastic gyre is floating close to Palau’s waters, which poses a major threat to the health of marine life.

Finally, there’s climate change, which could submerge a lot of Palau in the years to come and shatter its coral reefs with deadly storms. In 2015, the country faced some of the strongest typhoons ever recorded.

Reef in PalauImage: Flickr: NOAA Ocean Explorer

Nonetheless, Palau’s aggressive actions have spurred responses around the world.

The US declared  400,000 square miles of no-take zones and Britain established the largest continuous no-take zone around the Pitcairn Islands.

Chile also announced 350,000 square miles of marine reserves during the 2015 Our Ocean Conference, an event that suggests countries are at least thinking about getting serious about marine protection.

Currently, 2% of the oceans are reserves (still prone to being exploited). Experts say that this number has to be 10% to make a meaningful difference.

Public pressure is certainly growing. As ominous stats of overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are more widely shared, many people are demanding change.

Ultimately, Palau is showing the world that the oceans can be protected but only if there is collaboration across the world. One country’s efforts can be bolstered or undermined by another country’s efforts.

The Paris climate talks last December brought this conversation a little further, giving diplomats and environmental figures a chance to sketch out plans. But a lot more has to be done.

The entire paradigm of human activity on the oceans has to be changed. Instead of viewing the oceans as an endless source of food and a dumping ground, countries have to view them as fragile environments that have to be protected.

This doesn’t mean that humans have to stop fishing. It just means fishing sustainably, allowing fish populations to recover, so that they don’t go extinct.