The ocean is one big kitchen for tourists visiting Palau. Marine experts say the appetite for reef fish must be curbed.
"Dining habits are removing important fish species from local reefs, and it's ironic that viewing these fish is the reason people come in the first place. This is an important step that can be taken now, rather than a future adaptation to climate change," says Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor, Nippon Foundation-UBC Nereus Program Manager, University of British Columbia. "Sustainable tourism, especially ecotourism, shouldn't threaten the food security of local people or their environment."
Cisneros-Montemayor is co-author a recent Nippon Foundation-UBC Nereus Program study recently published in the Marine Policy science journal. While previous studies have focused on physical damage that Palau tourists cause reefs from stepping on coral to interacting with wildlife, this is the first to evaluate the effects of eating the same fish that tourists are looking at through their dive masks.
Reducing tourist consumption of reef fish is critical for Palau's ocean sustainability, states the study. The authors recommend a more than 70 per cent reduction in reef fish consumption by visitors as the best tourism management strategy. The health of reefs, the study says, can be better maintained by shifting seafood consumption to open water fish, such as sustainably-harvested tuna, instead of reef fishes such as grouper, snapper and parrotfish.
"Palau's reefs and the fish communities they host are incredibly beautiful and recognized worldwide as a top diving destination," says lead author Colette Wabnitz, Nippon Foundation-UBC Nereus Program Research Associate, University of British Columbia. “Tourist numbers can reach nine times the local population and most come to enjoy the ocean. This puts enormous pressure on local marine resources that are central to local communities' culture and livelihoods.”
The authors developed a social-ecological computer model to explore policy scenarios involving tourism, climate change, marine conservation, and local food security. Fish consumption emerged as playing an important role in future ecosystem declines.
The study's recommendations, which align with the current proposal of developing an offshore national fishery as part of the recently designated National Marine Sanctuary, may allow Palau to protect reef systems and the industries that rely on them, as well as traditional local lifestyles intimately linked to catching and eating seafood.
"The ocean is central to Palau's life and customs; their seafood consumption must be maintained sustainably," says co-author Yoshitaka Ota, Nippon Foundation-UBC
Nereus Program director of policy, University of Washington. "The most important thing is for the people of Palau to keep engaging with the ocean, eating good fish, catching fish sustainably and protecting their way of life, tekoi ra belau — as they say in Palau. We are hoping that this study will be used for current Pacific Island Nation policy to address what they can do right now and for the future."