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Islands of Sustainability


World-famous Rock Islands in Palau

Palau coral

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Aerial view of Palau's Rock Islands


Leading the way


Leading that movement is Palau’s 50-year-old president, Tommy Remengesau, Jr., who joined Conservancy staff members aboard the Hōkūle‛a on its journey from Yap to Palau.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau and Jennifer Yano aboard Hôkûle‛a

(Above) President Tommy Remengesau, Jr., Jennifer Yano and busy TNC staff and crew (below) on voyage from Yap to Palau.

TNC staff and crew aboard Hôkûle'a

“My country has such a rich marine ecosystem with a lot of diversified corals,” said Remengesau, Jr., an avid diver. “I want these reefs to live on for my children and future generations.”

Remengesau, Jr. is backing up his talk. In 2005, the progressive leader spearheaded the Micronesia Challenge, a bold regional initiative to protect 30 percent of near-shore marine resources and 20 percent of terrestrial resources by 2020.

The Challenge countries – Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands – represent about 5 percent of the marine area of the Pacific and 7 percent of its coastlines. But their commitment could have an even greater impact on island conservation around the globe.

Palau has passed a law to develop a network of marine protected areas that vary in size, location, and management strategy, utilizing a toolchest of strategies including no take, no entry, specific species restrictions, seasonal closures, and limited entry for subsistence fishing. With fishermen involved in the process, they become some of the strongest advocates for protection, as they see results that ensure fishing for the next generation.

Upon arriving in Palau, Hōkūle‛a crewmembers marveled at the richness of its ecosystem –  unspoiled reefs alive with hundreds of species of corals, invertebrates, turtles, and swarming schools of fish.

Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson mourned the degraded state of Hawaiian reefs today.
Navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

“I love my home, Hawai‘i. I was born there, I live there, and I will die there,” said Thompson. “But I felt shame for Hawai‘i after I swam in the coral reefs of Palau. We have let the health of our reefs decline so greatly in the past 50 years. Like Palau, we know what the problems are and we know how to solve them. The difference is that Palau is doing something about it.”



'Cutting edge' approach grounded in ancient wisdom

The Rock Islands, encompassing 642 square kilometers of thriving coral reefs and crystal clear lagoon waters, are Palau’s crowning glory.

The spectacular beauty of these islands, located in the southern state of Koror, attract more than 70,000 visitors each year. Yet these islands remain in a near-pristine state – thanks to a community-based management approach that melds cutting edge conservation science with traditional beliefs and values.

A colorful folk story explains the origin of the Rock Islands – more than 400 tiny coralline limestone islets resembling lushly vegetated mushroom caps.

The myth recalls how a gluttonous infant ate all the food and crops of the village. Never satisfied, he grew huge yet kept demanding more. The villagers decided the greedy baby had to be killed, or all would starve. When the grim deed was done, the child’s body fell into the sea, its pieces becoming the Rock Islands.

The parable alludes to the wisdom of sustainability, warning of how a community will perish when consuming greed overtakes the greater social and ecological good.

Such traditional beliefs empower the values-based management regime that protects the Rock Islands today. Two years of consultation with 13 community groups on how the islands’ resources should be managed were facilitated by the PCS and the state. According to Adalbert Eledui, director of the Koror Department of Conservation and Law, involving all stakeholders in the discussion was critical.

The Koror community agreed on four core values upon which subsequent strategies are aligned.  The values are first, to protect the biodiversity of terrestrial and marine resources; second, to maintain cultural and traditional heritage; third to allow for small-scale artisanal fishing for subsistence (no commercial fishing and no fishing using any kind of underwater breathing device); and fourth, to allow for “value” tourism, meaning to attract visitors that value the resources.

Only 11 sites in all of the Rock Islands are open to use by tourists. All dive sites have mooring buoys to prevent coral reef damage from anchors, and boats are limited to specific weight classes. There is a noticeable absence of thrill craft vehicles as they are limited to four sports zones.  “This is not an amusement park,” Eledui stressed. “It is a marine park.”

fish and coral in Palau
Orangefin anemonefish Amphiprion chrysopterus nestled in Palau's coral reef
Saving reefs reaps benefits

Every visitor to the Rock Islands must purchase a $25 permit, which allows access for two weeks. More than $1.5 million raised annually from user fees pays for enforcement officers to patrol the area around the clock; road and harbor improvements; and litter clean up. Proceeds also fund a new tour guide certification program in English, Mandarin and Japanese, to promote responsible eco-tourism that respects Palau’s natural and cultural resources.
Koror tourism generates about $70 million a year, fueling Palau’s economic engine. Thompson observed, “Business needs the coral reefs, and the coral reefs need business.” Eledui responded, “A large Napoleon wrasse may be worth $100 in the market, but it is worth a million left in the water.” 

As wise stewards of their valuable ocean resources, the people of Palau embrace both ancient traditions and the prospect of a sustainable future. Their success encourages other communities to do the same.

Thompson remarked that Hawai‘i needs to implement its own values-based plan to govern all land and marine use. “We all have an impact on the health of our ocean,” the navigator said. “We need to change our ways, not for us as individuals today, but for children yet unborn.”

Check out other Conservation Spotlights stories >>

Nature picture credits (top to bottom, left to right): © Jez O'Hare (Rock Islands, Palau); © Pauline Sato/TNC (President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. and Jennifer Yano aboard Hōkūle‛a), © Monte Costa (Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson).