Continuing a Tradition of Ocean Stewardship

An interview with Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr.

Palau’s famed Rock Islands give a sense of the interconnectivity of the land and the sea.

After helping to establish the world's first shark sanctuary in his nation's waters in 2009, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. of the Republic of Palau signed legislation last year that set aside 80 percent of his small west Pacific island nation's ocean as a fully protected marine sanctuary. The world's sixth-largest reserve, the Palau sanctuary covers an area larger than California and has the greatest percentage of any nation's waters off limits to fishing.

"Creating this sanctuary is a bold move that the people of Palau recognize as essential to our survival," Remengesau explained. To protect this vast tract he also signed an international treaty targeting illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. "Palau will not tolerate poachers in our ocean," he warned. His administration followed up on that warning by confiscating and burning vessels from Vietnam and the Philippines caught illegally fishing in Palau's waters.

In May 2016 Remengesau was awarded the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in National Stewardship. In June, David Helvarg visited Palau and interviewed Remengesau for Alert Diver.

Alert Diver: What led Palau to become a world leader in ocean conservation?
Tommy Remengesau Jr.: Ocean conservation is very much a part of our tradition and livelihood, and we know to sustain our future existence as island people we must balance nature and development.

AD: What in your own life brought you to the idea of ocean stewardship?
TR: As a young Palauan you're taught from early on not to take more than you need for today, to think about your children and their children and to live in harmony with nature. This is an integral part of growing up in Palau, so it's natural for me to lead by rallying the people to do what we've been taught from a young age.

AD: What is a bul?
TR: Bul is part of our traditional practices. It literally translates as prohibition — it means conservation and thinking about the future. When the chief of a village and the fishermen notice the fish population of a certain area of the reef declining, the chief would institute a bul, telling the local villagers to stop fishing that particular location. People would comply with a bul because the whole community policed it. We noticed over generations that fish populations in those prohibited areas would eventually rebound, so the leaders would open up the bul and allow fishing again.

So now we have a bul for the ocean. When you talk about an 80 percent marine sanctuary, it's not just for that 80 percent; this will repopulate and reenergize the 20 percent that we are opening up for domestic fishing and other activities. We have proven that the benefits of a bul extend outside of the protected area. With 80 percent of our waters protected, the spillover effect is not small. This will benefit not only us but the Philippines, Indonesia and FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) as well. This is our contribution to the Pacific and to the world.

Remengesau confers with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the Our Ocean conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., in June 2014.

AD: You've often said that your environment is your economy. Could you expand on that?
TR: We believe you cannot separate the two. Our economy is based on tourism — people coming to experience our natural resources. Our livelihood as Palauans therefore is based on how we protect our resources for our visitors and for ourselves in terms of our food security. We have a long history of looking to the ocean to provide us with fish.

AD: Fishermen often say sharks are taking their fish or that sharks should be targeted for their fins, but in 2009 you created the world's first nationwide shark sanctuary.
TR: We believe every living thing on this earth is here for a reason — the shark is a part of the reef ecosystem. Besides that, we've done research and found that a live shark is worth $1.9 million over its 60- to 70-year lifespan. A dead shark's fins, in contrast, are worth about $45 per kilo just once. It's been a good partnership with the sharks, so to speak.

AD: When you signed the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act into law, what impacts did you expect?
TR: Eighty percent is the culmination of the Micronesia Challenge we embarked on 10 years ago. This initiative targeted 20 percent of our reef and 30 percent of our terrestrial areas for protection. At 20 percent we said, "Why not go to 80 percent?" — and that's where we are now. Again, the benefits of a marine protected area are not confined to that area: It is very effective at repopulating other areas. Imagine the benefits if every country had a sizable marine protected area

AD: Another big challenge you face is climate change.
TR: It's on! Sea-level rise is a challenge we are already dealing with. We have agricultural lands that have been flooded by salt water, and low-lying atoll communities threatened by the sea. Global warming is contributing to unpredictable storms, severe typhoons and more. We're seeing all of this here, and the only way to address it is for the world community to begin to stop contributing to the problem. Here in Palau we do have some high areas, but the Marshall Islands, for example, are all sandy atolls, and the people there have no high ground to go to.

President Remengesau walks on the beach in front of the Palau Pacific Resort.
AD: I hear you're a fisherman. What are your other favorite ocean activities?
TR: Anything that has to do with the ocean is a favorite activity of Palauans. Did you know the most eligible bachelor in Palau is the good fisherman? If you're a good fisherman, you'll likely find a wife.

As an island boy, freediving and fishing, I thought I knew what the ocean was all about. But when you get into scuba, you really begin to understand the world beneath the waves and how the organisms depend on one another to survive. I strongly encourage people to learn how to scuba dive. When you really spend some time down there you can enjoy the underwater beauty and learn how everything is connected.

Also, did you know nobody has been killed by a shark in Palau? Not in our entire history. That's a fact we're very proud of. Crocodiles — yes, there have been some unfortunate incidents with crocodiles, but never with sharks.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2016