Palau's fish stocks slowly rebounding from decades of overfishing
Fish populations in Palau are gradually beginning to recover from decades of overfishing, according to a study released by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC).
"The results from this study indicate that reef fish biomass in the fished waters of Palau is still generally low in comparison to local (Marine Protected Areas) and theoretical estimates of productivity," PICRC said, "however, the increase in herbivores over time could be an indication that fish stocks are starting to recover."
The biomass of herbivorous fish was found to have increased significantly since PICRC’s previous 2017 survey, a good sign, as herbivores control algae on reefs and create space for young corals to grow.
The report also identifies “hot spots” of high fish biomass in the northern reefs, and in the south near Peleliu and Angaur.
The study found that out of eight species surveyed for spawning potential, six were found to produce enough offspring to naturally maintain their population size. In 2017, only four of six species surveyed met this threshold.
Herbivorous fish are vital for regulating the abundance of macroalgae and turf algae on coral reefs, while predatory fishes are important for maintaining prey populations, the study said.
Overfishing of these groups can lead to the degradation of these key ecosystem functions.
Since the 1970s, there have been increasing concerns among fishers that reef fish stocks have declined in Palau due to overfishing and unsustainable practices and more recent studies have shown that Palau’s fisheries are fully exploited.
In order to combat this, Palau has implemented measures to help protect its marine resources through the Marine Protection Act 1994, which was amended in 2015.
Subsistence fishing is still a major activity in Palau, however, over time fishing also became important for the local economy. Before the export ban, around half of landed reef fish were sold commercially to residents, tourists or exported.
PICRC said improvements in conditions signal that management initiatives, such as the Protected Areas Network, state conservation areas and the ban on reef fish export, are beginning to turn the tide for Palau’s reef fisheries.
“After so many years of overfishing, recovery will take time,” said PICRC researcher and lead author of the report, Christina Muller Karanassos. “But in this new report, we’re starting to see signs that fish populations are recovering.”
In May of this year, PICRC completed the third round of nationwide fish surveys. Data from the surveys are now being analyzed and will provide further information on how the fish stocks are doing.
Additional management initiatives can build on current efforts and help our fish populations continue to recover. The report’s authors recommend implementing minimum sizes, especially for fish species with low spawning potential, increasing enforcement and expanding MPAs to protect species with large ranges.
“Reef fisheries are an important part of food security and culture in Palau, so these results are very encouraging” continued Muller Karanassos. “Our hard work is paying off.”