Why Palau?

by David Ginsburg
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com

In a previous blog entry, my colleague Jim Haw gave the rationale for our work on Guam. After a week on Guam we will make the two-hour flight to Palau. The highest level of species biodiversity occurs in the Indo-West Pacific region, with nearly 2 percent of the world’s reefs distributed throughout Micronesia. Efforts to conserve coral reefs in this region include the integration of management strategies by government and non-governmental agencies alike.

Dr. David Ginsburg inventories some of the student dive gear prior to leaving for Guam and Palau at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. Photo by Jim Haw.

For example, on Guam and Palau the Micronesian Challenge was established as a mechanism for protecting at least 30 percent of an island’s near-shore marine resources, as well as a means for developing solutions to prevent their demise. The health of Guam’s reefs has been in decline for several decades. By and large, the observed (and expected) decreases in reef health and ecosystem services are attributed to overfishing, habitat loss, increased development of the tourist industry and the imminent buildup of military activities.

Map of Palau. Courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

The Republic of Palau provides a strong contrast to Guam. Located in the western Caroline Islands, the Palau Archipelago is composed of nearly 586 islands and stretches across nearly 700 km2 of the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Palau has one of the richest sources of marine life in the world in part because of its relatively complex island and reef geography. Although the total land area of these islands is comparable to that of Guam (~500 km2), roughly 9-times fewer people (~20,000 people) live in Palau.

If one were looking for a single metric to describe the difference between Guam and Palau, it might be that the ratio of reef area to human population is far higher on Palau. Palau is a sovereign state in a Compact of Free Association with the Unites States. Palauan citizens are not U.S. citizens, but in many cases they can travel to the U.S. without a visa or passport.

Many of the same local and global challenges facing Guam (e.g., coral bleaching, illegal fishing, habitat loss, etc.) are becoming growing concerns in Palau. Palauans are becoming increasingly alarmed at the degradation of their coral reef resources on ecological, economic and cultural grounds. Emerging threats include the possibility of oil drilling in the north and continuing tourism development.

Our plans for 2011 include work with the Coral Reef Research Foundation and the Koror Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement, to assist in an ongoing survey and baseline species map of Ngederrak Reef Marine Protected Area. Our team will dive and conduct critical research with local leaders in marine science and environmental ecology.

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