Making a Difference: Environmental Students in Palau

by Patrick Talbott and Gabrielle Roffe
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com

Monday was our first day diving and snorkeling the Ngederrak Conservation Area of Palau. The difference in biodiversity along the reef crest was instantly noticeable as we dropped down to 25 feet and surveyed 50-meter transects. Applying belt transects to snorkeling also allowed us to survey the three- to five-foot reef flat, which differed from our survey experiences in Guam. There was an obvious difference in substrate diversity and marine invertebrate species between Guam and Palau.

From left: Paul Collins, King Sam, Ilebrang Olkeriil, Patrick Talbott, Gabrielle Roffe and Caitlin Contag. Photo by Jim Haw.

This afternoon it was fitting that we also met with the Koror State Government Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement because they focused their talk around the 5.8 square km Ngederrak Protected Area. We learned about the history of the creation of marine protected areas (MPA) in Palau and how it went from a two-year moratorium in 2001 to a permanent MPA divided into six zones for protection.

The director, Ilebrang Olkeriil, and PR officer, King Sam, explained how the local and historical knowledge of the fishing populations and marine ecosystems influenced where these zones were placed. There is a culture of sustainability in Palau that dates back to ancient tribes who practiced allocating resources effectively. This cultural practice has translated into modern day marine protected areas.

USC students recover a transect tape at the end of a survey in the Ngederrak Conservation Area of Palau.

The fishing community understands the value of natural resources and the importance of enforcing the law. It is interesting to see the differences of enforcement in Palau, where there are social and cultural ramifications for both those who protect and violate the law. The department explained that since Palau has such a small community, that enforcing laws on their family and friends makes enforcement socially difficult. However, the small community contributes to their culture of sustainable resource use.

The department expressed their strengths in meeting their goals in enforcement, but they are constantly looking to better conserve the MPAs. They do not have the resources to research and survey the MPAs themselves. It is fulfilling to know that the people of Palau are excited to have 24 students interested in their conservation efforts. This trip and the work we are doing is actually helping and making a difference in the conservation here in Palau, which creates a different experience and perspective for us as students.

It’s really amazing to see the influence the culture and society of such a small community can have on the MPAs. We feel privileged that we are able to participate in protecting and making a difference for a community centered on resource management and sustainability.

Patrick Talbott is a senior majoring in environmental studies and policy, planning and development; and Gabrielle Roffe is a senior majoring in environmental studies.

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