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Words Sanya Shahrasbi

Imagine swimming with jellyfish, stingless and soft, or diving with thousands of fish, colorfully animated like a box of crayons, or touching dolphins and dugongs as they swim freely in the open ocean. For the twenty thousand inhabitants of Palau, this is a reality. With thousands of species inhabiting its oceans and lands, Palau has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world—and it is doing everything that it can to protect it.

In response to the increased effects of global warming and illegal fishing on their environment, officials and inhabitants of Palau are taking active measures to protect their homeland and their way of life. In 2003, realizing that world leaders were failing to protect the environmental future of the planet, Palauan officials created a program called the Protected Areas Network (PAN). This initiative aimed at uniting the government and the local communities for the common cause of protecting the marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Protected areas, communities, and towns included in PAN have access to the national monitoring system and eligibility to receive national funding. Much of this national funding comes from a “Green Fee” that is paid by tourists as they leave Palau.

This was just the beginning of Palau’s fight for the oceans. Two years later, Palau, along with the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Marshall Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, established the Micronesia Challenge. Its goal was to conserve at least 30 percent of the land and resources near the coast, and 20 percent of the terrestrial life by 2020— more than double the international standard of 10 percent for both areas.

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The world’s first shark sanctuary

The eyes of the international community shifted towards the Pacific when Palauan officials created the world’s first shark sanctuary. With the increase in illegal shark finning in Asian waters, Palau decided that “the need to protect the sharks outweighs the need to enjoy a bowl of [shark fin] soup.” Its initiative encouraged countries from all over the world, including the Maldives, Kiribati, and the Bahamas, to create marine sanctuaries of their own.

Last year Palau transformed its entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area prescribed by the United National Law of the Sea as an area specific to the economic enrichment of a country, into a marine sanctuary. This measure served to protect 600,000 square kilometers of ocean, an area slightly larger than France. However, implementing this law has faced many challenges, the major one being the lack of resources to enforce the legislation.

For the sake of its environment, Palau has done everything in its power to increase its international visibility. From partnerships with Greenpeace to increased diplomatic ties with the U.S., Australia, and Japan, it has explored methods to capture poachers red-handed. In cooperation with Pew Charitable Trusts, and a British company, the Satellite Application Catapult, Palau has launched a satellite that monitors the oceans and sends the data to a “virtual watch room,” alerting the Palauan coast guard of illicit fishing in its EEZ.  So far this project has enhanced Palau’s ability to capture and fine illegal fisherman.

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On the international stage

The COP21 conference in Paris in 2015 became a platform for the current President of Palau, His Excellency Mr. Tommy Remengesau, to raise awareness about the importance of ocean preservation for the Pacific countries and the world. There he spoke to world leaders about visible changes in ocean levels, species that had disappeared, and poachers who were destroying the marine ecosystems.  Palau was the first country to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, which was adopted in 2009 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It calls for greater port controls through thorough standards of inspection on foreign vessels. It allows countries to block ships suspected of illicit fishing practices in an attempt to curb illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

In the Cities for Climate event in Paris in 2015, hosted by the Mayor of Paris, Ms. Anne Hidalgo, the president of Palau met many prominent international leaders fighting for climate change resolutions. Michael Bloomberg, Al Gore, Robert Redford, Elon Musk, and Leonardo DiCaprio were among the guests who were invited, as well as mayors and officials from all over the world. H.E. Mr. Remengesau met Oscar-winning actor and environmental philanthropist Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio. The two privately discussed the direct effects of climate change on Palau’s biodiversity and an invitation was extended to the actor to come visit.

Following their meeting, Mr. DiCaprio, along with his fellow-Oscar winning colleague, Adrien Brody, visited Palau. Mr. DiCaprio and H.E. Mr. Remengesau went diving together and discussed potential partnerships between the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Palau, in particular a way to finance and protect Palau’s marine sanctuary and the Protected Areas Network.

With proper funding, the future of this country should be bright. As the sun sets on this tropical paradise, its wildlife can rest assured that there are people watching over it and fighting for its preservation.