Palau’s controversial plan to take climate justice into its own hands

Aerial view of Palau (Photo: Supplied)

Palau’s waters contain some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity. Critically endangered hawksbill turtles and endangered Napoleon wrasse, which can grow up to six feet long and are known for the distinctive bulge on their foreheads, cruise through reefs home to hundreds of species of coral.

The country, an archipelago of over 300 pristine tropical islands popping up out of the Pacific, has tried hard to protect its natural gifts. In 2009, it forbade the commercial fishing of sharks, creating the world’s first national shark sanctuary. Species like dugongs and bump head parrotfish are protected. Tourists have to pay a $100 green fee on entry to the country to support local conservation, and sign a pledge written by the children of Palau to “tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.” Sunscreen that has ingredients that are toxic to reefs is banned.

But perhaps its most ambitious conservation initiative is the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS). Any kind of extractive activity, including fishing, has been banned in the PNMS, an area bigger than California, which comprises 80% of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), since January 2020. Not only can so-called marine protected areas (MPAs) safeguard biodiversity and ecosystems but they are also important for the fight against climate change; they can prevent stores of seafloor carbon from being released from activities like trawling or resource extraction.

But the future of the PNMS—one of the largest marine protected areas in the world—looks uncertain. The government is now considering reducing the size of the PNMS to as little as 30% of the EEZ, in an attempt to increase economic activity to ease the hit COVID-19 has had on the country’s finances.

Palau’s struggle highlights questions of justice that countries around the world are facing as they grapple with how to balance biodiversity protection and climate action with economic growth: What contributions should developing nations have to make to protect biodiversity and the climate? Should they take a hit to their economic development, when climate change caused mostly by the world’s largest emitters, is the source of many of the ocean’s problems? Meanwhile, a global goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans means Palau is doing far more for ocean protection than most countries.

“Save our sanctuary!”

The plan to reduce the size of the PNMS has sparked heated debate in Palau. As the Our Ocean conference convened in Palau in mid-April, bringing together hundreds of officials, activists, and businesspeople from around the world to discuss ocean protection, a dozen or so youth activists, environmentalists, and fishermen gathered outside to protest the potential scaling down of the PNMS. “Save our sanctuary! We know you can do it,” they shouted as diplomats arrived in their black SUVs. “Fishermen Want the Sanctuary,” and “People Not Profit,” their signs read.

One petition to protect the sanctuary has gathered 2,600 signatures (about 14% of Palau’s population). The country’s Council of Chiefs, a group of traditional chiefs that advises the president, opposes the plan to roll back the sanctuary, which was designed with the indigenous practice of “bul”- which calls for a moratorium on the use of resources to prevent damage to a habitat or species–in mind. Former president Tommy Remengesau Jr. has blasted the move to roll back one of his signature policies and has said the foreign fishing lobby was trying to influence national leaders to allow them to fish in Palau again. Several local NGOs, the Palau Chamber of Commerce, a local fishing start-up fishing company and some conservation societies showed up at a March public hearing to oppose the plan, according to the Island Times.

But Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr., who took office a year after the PNMS was enacted, and several others in the government want to reduce the size of the PNMS. Whipps says he’s committed to protecting at least 30% of the EEZ, but the country needs to find a better balance between protection and production. Tourism, which accounted for almost 50% of Palau’s GDP before the pandemic, has not yet made a comeback in a meaningful way. Palau’s GDP dropped by 17% in 2021, according to the Asia Development Bank. The Ministry of Fisheries, Agriculture, and Environment has reported that $1.8 million has been lost from banning fishing. Environmentalists argue that the PNMS has resulted in tens of millions of dollars in grants and donations to support conservation, but some in the government argue that money goes to non-profits, not to fund things like state governments, education, medical care, and the police.

“These kids protesting…they say, ‘We want 80% and you’re bad, Mr. President. You’re bad because you’re trying to come up with a better plan,’” Whipps says. “But they forget that what their protest[s are] saying is, ‘We don’t want money for our school lunch program. We don’t want money to pay our teachers.’”

Whipps says implementing the PNMS led to unintended consequences, like the closure of a foreign-run fishery that paid taxes, employed workers, ran a local processing facility, and provided Palau with cheap sources of protein by selling lower-grade tuna and other bycatch locally. After the ban, foreign commercial fishing vessels that could fish offshore for species like skipjack and yellowfin left Palau’s waters, causing a shortage of tuna in the local market.

Now, he says, the country needs to do marine spatial planning—a process of analyzing and deciding what activities should be allowed in what space—to determine how to use their resources properly. “A lot of times people get hung up on numbers—80%, 30%. It shouldn’t be about numbers, it should be about the right size, the most effective way to do it,” he says. “And then when you have these areas, they gotta be durable, and they gotta get the financing that sustains them.”

But some Palauans say that’s short-sighted, and some local fishermen say they are making progress on developing local tuna fishing capabilities following the departure of foreign fishing boats. “We have just started and we are growing. It is only the pandemic that is keeping us from expanding…Again, please don’t open to foreign fishing boats,” Elia Yobech, who works for Belau Offshore Fisheries Inc., and fishes for tuna, among other species, said at a public hearing on the matter in March, according to the Island Times.

“A much higher standard than the rest of the world?”

Only about 2% of the world’s oceans are covered by “no-take” MPAs that ban fishing, mining, drilling, and other extractive industries, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But there is an international push to protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030 (commonly referred to as “30×30″). The ocean is an important heat and carbon sink, helping to keep the global climate stable. Without this sort of protection, increasing water temperature and ocean acidification could be disastrous for much of life on Earth.

Some Pacific island nations, like Palau, have been way ahead of these efforts. Indeed, Palau has already set aside 80% of its waters, while the rest of the world is aiming to protect only 30%. And some are wondering why developing countries should suffer economically just for doing more for the planet than those wealthier than them. “That’s a question that some of us have asked ourselves,” says Steven Victor, Palau’s Minister of Fisheries, Agriculture and Environment. “Why are we being held to a much higher standard than the rest of the world?”

Victor says the 80% no-take zone may be constraining efforts to build the local fishery sector, which is important to improve food security, and questions what real impact the PNMS has on protecting global tuna stocks, a highly migratory species unless others are making similar efforts. “To this day, no one can really articulate what we are trying to protect within 80%. We’re simply saying, ‘The bigger the better.’ But at whose expense? The expense of the people of Palau.”

Whipps agrees that it is inequitable for Palau to restrict itself so much. “Is the warming water Palau’s fault? No. It’s large emitters. So if you can’t change your behavior, then I guess you better come to the table and pay for what you can’t if you can’t change,” he says.

Palau is a member of the Commission of Small Island States (COSIS) on Climate Change and International Law, a group that seeks to hold the world’s largest emitters accountable for climate change-related destruction; COSIS aims to unite small-island countries to pursue climate judicial action through international courts.

But domestically, there are questions over who would benefit from opening the EEZ.

“The people whose lives are dependent on the ocean are actually benefiting from the design of the MPA right now, but they’re not at the discussion table,” says Ann Singeo, of the Ebiil Society, an environmental NGO that works with local fishermen.

She says Palau’s fishermen have already noticed a positive impact from the PNMS. “They’re catching [fish] 2-5 miles outside of the reef now before they’d have to go 15-20 miles out,” she says, explaining that only people who can afford fuel or have a certain type of vessel can travel this distance. “This bill is just basically going to give away the waters to foreign corporations again.”

Some Palauans believe that ocean protection is in their country’s DNA, in line with its cultural and traditional values, and that as a small-island developing state (SIDS) it should lead on climate efforts, given that SIDS are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“Science tells us that our world has to fully protect at least 30% of our world’s oceans by 2030 for life on our planet earth to survive. And yet we are nowhere near that target,” Palau’s Council of Chiefs wrote in a statement that appeared in the Ti Belau newspaper during the Our Ocean conference. They added: “Without MPAs like PNMS, it is not only Palau who is at risk but our entire world.”

As the muddled debate over the future of Palau’s sanctuary continues, that much is clear: The future of the oceans is at risk, and it puts the world’s climate goals in peril. But to truly protect the world’s oceans, the rest of the world will need to step up its action.