By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Raising marginal profits that would temporarily bridge Palau’s financial shortfalls is not worth exploiting the nation’s marine sanctuary at the expense of future generations, the Council of Chiefs said today.
At the opening of the 7th Our Ocean Conference in Koror, the council issued a statement opposing a congressional bill that would practically abolish the Palau National Marine Sanctuary or PNMS, one of the world’s largest fully protected territorial waters.
The irony was not lost on the council. World delegates to the conference gather in the nation known for its bold environmental regulations that have kept its ecosystem pristine. Yet, Palau’s iconic marine monument, which became the world’s model for conservation, is on the verge of collapse.
“Today the PNMS is under threat,” the council said.
The marine sanctuary, established in 2015, designates 80 percent of Palau’s exclusive economic zone as a no-take conservation area, protecting 500,000 sq km of its ocean resources.
"Science tells us that our world has to fully protect at least 30 percent of our wor1d's oceans by 2030 for life on our planet to survive. And yet we are nowhere near that target," the council said.
After years of planning, the marine protected area went into effect on Jan.1, 2020. All extractive activities such as fishing and mining are currently prohibited in the protected area.
“This is in line with our cultural and traditional values and represents a well-thought-out environmental policy and commitment of both people and government,” said the council.
Locally known as “Rubekul Belau," the Council of Chiefs is composed of traditional leaders from each of Palau's states. The council advises the president on matters concerning traditional law's customs and their relationship to the Constitution and the laws of Palau.
The council said Palau has gained benefits from the EEZ protection in economic terms and capacity building.
“The PNMS has also safeguarded food security, helped mitigate the impact of climate change on our island, and protected endangered species and biodiversity,” the council said. “It has also put Palau on the world map providing immense publicity that has given us huge opportunities and partnerships for sustainable growth.”
The controversial House Bill 11-30-2S would clear 70 percent of Palau's exclusive economic zone for foreign fishing.
Proponents of HB 11-30-2S said reopening the marine sanctuary would "stimulate economic recovery.”
They argued that the closure of 80 percent of the nation's EEZ has resulted in increased tuna prices in the domestic market, overexploitation of reef fish and national revenue decline.
The council, however, said lifting the marine protection would “only realize short-term and marginal profits,” the dollar value of which has not even been quantified.
“While it is understood that there is a need to seek ways to bolster our revenue-earning capacity post-pandemic, short-term solutions should not jeopardize the long-term policy objectives of the republic and the wishes of the Palauan people,” the council said.
The traditional chiefs reminded Congress that designating the marine sanctuary was based on Palauans' ancient conservation practice called “bul,” which has been handed down from generation to generation.
Bul calls for the suspension of harvesting certain species of fish and other marine resources in certain areas to give them time to regenerate and reproduce in abundance.
“This has been proven by science as a highly effective climate mitigation strategy. We need this now more than ever before,” the council said.
The waters of Palau, famed as one of the seven underwater wonders of the world, hold more than 1,300 species of fish, 400 species of hard coral, 300 species of soft coral, and seven of the world’s nine species of giant clams.
Palau’s pristine environment drives its successful ecotourism.
“Without (marine protected areas) like the PNMS, it is not only Palau that is at risk. but our entire world,” the council said.
The chiefs urged the Palauan government to explore other potential sources of revenue.
“We believe there is a multitude of unexplored alternatives resulting in sustainable revenues that return social and environmental gains— ones that also reflect our deep cultural wisdom and connection to the ocean, which has cradled our lives and sustained our culture for many generations,” the council said.
“This wisdom underpins our culture, constitution and laws. It informs everything we do as Palauans and it is taught to us all from birth. This is a fundamental principle and the main focus of our position statement to this august group on the occasion of the 7" Our Ocean Conference.”