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A Hawai‘i delegation returned from Palau this past weekend inspired by community-led conservation efforts that are restoring the nation’s marine resources.
“Communities in Palau have merged culture, fisher knowledge, science and government to replenish their fish and marine resources,” said William Aila, director of the Hawai‘i State Department of Land and Natural Resources. “One of the most inspiring aspects of the Palau story is that fishermen and local communities worked together to protect their resources, it was not imposed by government.”
Aila was among a group of 20 Hawai‘i delegates who traveled to Palau from communities within the state that are working to restore natural resources and revive Hawaiian culture. The group included residents from O‘ahu, Maui, Lana‘i and Hawai‘i Island. The trip was part of a learning exchange sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, which is working with communities to restore and protect marine resources in both Hawai‘i and Palau.
The Republic of Palau is a Pacific archipelago of 340 islands located 600 miles east of the Philippines. Its waters are among the richest marine areas in the world, containing more than 700 coral species and nearly 1,300 varieties of reef fish. The area has been named one of the “Seven Underwater Wonders of the World” by marine scientists and divers.
According to Noah Idechong, founder of the Palau Conservation Society and Speaker of the Palau House of Delegates, conservation is woven into the fabric of traditional and modern Palauan society. In the past, if a resource became scarce due to climatic changes or overharvesting, a moratorium, or bul, was declared by village chiefs. Local chiefs used bul to ban fishing during key spawning and feeding seasons, allowing fish to reproduce and replenish the waters. Following World War II, Palau’s bul system faded.
In recent decades, Palau has used its extraordinary marine resources to support a growing economy. Like other developing countries, however, it realized that economic growth—especially growth based on commercial fishing and tourism—was pushing its fisheries beyond sustainable levels. Compounding the problem, a 1998 El Nino bleaching event devastated Palau’s corals, further reducing fish populations.
In response, communities in two states, Kayangel and Ngerechlong, revived the traditional bul and had tremendous success in rebuilding coral and fish populations. “When other communities saw that success, they wanted to do the same thing,” said Idechong.
Today, the revival of the bul system has become the basis of a network of more than 20 protected areas. By law, communities within these protected areas look first to local leaders and their traditional guidance, and then to scientists, to identify vulnerable ecosystems and institute the appropriate protection.
“In Palau, the movement to protect their marine resources came from the bottom up, not the top down,” Aila noted. “The bul and legislation complement one another—and they came at the request of the communities for support of their efforts.”
While in Palau, the Hawai‘i delegation learned that dive operators there pay a user fee that helps fund management and enforcement. “Fishers have become active participants in enforcement,” said Manuel Mejia, The Nature Conservancy’s community-based marine program manager for Hawai‘i. “We met fishermen who used to be poachers and are now rangers, helping to enforce the laws that protect their resources.”
Vern Yamanaka of the Ka`ūpūlehu Marine Life Advisory Committee (KMLAC) on Hawai`i Island noted that while conservation benefits both biodiversity and tourism in Palau, those are not the primary benefits. “In Palau they conserve resources for food,” he said. “Our resources should be managed for food in Hawai`i too,” he said.
Kimi Werner, a champion Hawai‘i spearfisher who accompanied the group, was just as inspired by the work being done by the Hawaii communities as by the examples in Palau. “Seeing Palau and learning about how they manage resources is wonderful, and bringing this group together to share our knowledge and the work we are doing in Hawai‘i is inspirational. Although our journey to Palau has come to an end, it’s really just the beginning.”
The visit to Palau completed the Conservancy-sponsored Hawai‘i-Palau Learning Exchange. Last July, a Palau delegation visited communities in Hawai‘i to learn about the potential environmental impacts that can accompany rapid change and development. They learned about the importance of managing sediment, run-off, and fresh water flows; preventing the importation and establishment of invasive species; and working in partnership with developers to manage natural resources.
The Hawai‘i-Palau Learning Exchange was made possible through generous support from the MacArthur Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, the Maui Office of Economic Development, Hawaii Fish Trust and The Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.