Palau is located approximately 800 km east of the Philippines, and consists of a series of islands ~459 km2 in total size. Palau’s coral reefs are considered to be one of the “Seven Underwater Wonders of the World.” Located on the north-eastern margin of the “coral triangle,” Palau’s coral reefs have both high species diversity and high habitat diversity. Palau’s reefs contain more than 350 species of hard corals, 200 species of soft corals, 300 species of sponges, 1,300 species of reef fish, and endangered species such as the dugong, saltwater crocodile, sea turtles, and giant clams. In addition to Palau’s diverse marine resources, it has the highest terrestrial biodiversity of all countries in Micronesia.
The immediate threats to Palau’s biodiversity result from the inappropriate use of natural resources due to tourism activities, development, population growth, and economic development associated with maintaining a high standard of living. Similar to other areas within Micronesia, climate-induced coral bleaching is an ongoing threat. Having previously suffered high levels of coral bleaching and mortality following the 1998 El Niño event, the predicted increase of El Niño associated bleaching events could create even greater devastation to this area. Despite these threats, Palau’s landscapes and seascapes remain relatively intact and provide options for protected area conservation.
Protected Area Network (PAN)
In November 2003, the Protected Areas Network Act (PAN Act) was passed by the Palau National Congress. This landmark piece of legislation provides a framework for Palau’s national and state governments to collaborate to establish a nationwide network of terrestrial and marine protected areas with the aim of protecting the biodiversity and natural resources of value to future social, cultural, economic, and environmental stability of Palau. The primary goal of this project is to assist in this process using the following ecoregional assessment methodology:
- Identify biodiversity targets (species to communities);
- Map occurrences/distributions of biodiversity targets and maintain a database of information relevant to each target;
- Identify conservation goals for each biodiversity target;
- Identify areas of high biodiversity value (e.g., areas that support multiple targets, rare species, and/or help maintain ecosystem processes);
- Analyze the threats and causes of high biodiversity areas and targets.
These goals complement those of the Micronesia Challenge that aims to have each country within Micronesia conserve 30% of near shore environments, and 20% of terrestrial environments, by the year 2020.
In May 2008 President Remengesau signed the revised PAN Act, which includes the establishment of a non-government corporation, the PANF, and the creation of a Green Fee (a $15 fee collected from visitors to Palau upon departure from the airport). This fee is intended to be used for management of PAN sites (a site that becomes part of the protected areas network by meeting certain ecological criteria). To date, close to $2M dollars have been collected since implementation of the green fee. The PAN Fund has been incorporated and all legal paper works finalized. The membership of the Board include Minister of Finance, Minister of Natural Resource Environment and Tourism, one representative each from The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, and five appointed members that require confirmation from the Palau Senate. The five appointed members are now awaiting confirmation.
When designing the Protected Areas Network, The Nature Conservancy’s model of incorporating effective management, representation and replication, critical areas, and connectivity was used. The Ecoregional Assessment of Palau occurred in multiple steps. First, forty-one conservation targets were selected at a workshop in Palau in 2002. Twenty-four of these targets were selected for the initial analysis using the Spatial Portfolio Optimization Tool (SPOT), which produced a variety of portfolios representing different protected area scenarios. Based on the SPOT analysis, it was determined that a variety of scenarios could accomplish protection goals; however, more work was needed to improve the quality of the data, and to complete the mapping of missing targets. Therefore, the second phase of planning focused on using the MARXAN tool.
Two workshops in May of 2006 set out to develop a set of protected area design principles, stratification, conservation targets and goals and to provide a range of Protected Areas Network (PAN) scenarios for review by workshop participants. Multiple PAN variables were considered, including size, landscape context, current condition, threats, costs, and conservation goals. MARXAN was exceptionally useful in this process, as it is designed to help synthesize and automate the selection process by integrating both biodiversity and socio-economic criterion that often conflict. Specifically, MARXAN attempts to identify scenarios that meet conservation goals, with minimal impact on socioeconomic values.
As part of the May 2006 workshops, a GAP analysis was conducted by overlaying the existing protected areas on top of Scenario 1, the unconstrained option of the MARXAN analysis. Scenario 2 shows the priority areas which are not part of the existing protected areas in red.
As of 2011, there are 5 PAN sites, including the following:
- Three terrestrial sites:
- Ngardok Nature Reserve, the largest freshwater lake in Micronesia in the State of Melekeok
- Mesekelat Conservation Area in the State of Ngchesar
- Ngerbekuu Nature Reserve and Ngemai Conservation Area, an integrated watershed and coastal marine site
- Two marine sites:
- Ebiil Conservation Area, a grouper aggregation site
- Helen Reef Atoll, largest atoll in Palau
Four other sites are in the process of becoming PAN sites (Aimeliik, Ngardmau, Ngaraard and Airai). These sites have submitted their completed application to the PAN Office. The PAN Office through the PAN Technical Committee will review the application against the PAN ecological criteria and will make recommendations as to whether accept or deny the application.
The 1998 worldwide coral bleaching event caused widespread coral mortality across Palau, reducing coral cover below 5% in most areas by 2001.1 There was much concern whether the reefs would recover. Few years following the bleaching event, the construction of the ring road around Babledaob Island began. The road construction led to widespread clearing of forest and mangroves, causing soils to erode into rivers and coastal waterways that impacted seagrass beds and coral reefs. At the same time, Palauans started noticing declining coral reef health and fish stocks, and degraded quality of freshwater resources. Studies, conducted by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) revealed that the degradation of reefs was a direct result of land-based sediments, which cause reduced coral cover, lower coral recruitment, and excessive growth of algae.2 Reefs in Airai Bay, a lagoon on the southeastern end of Babeldaob, were particularly affected by sediment.3
These results brought greater awareness of ecosystem connectivity, which shifted the conservation efforts in Palau to entire watershed areas. The creation of the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance (BWA) successfully merged the interests of communities, government agencies, conservation practitioners, and traditional leaders to protect entire watershed areas. A major success of the BWA was the signing of ‘Master Cooperative Agreements’ between several states on Babeldaob, which identify collective conservation goals and incentives for progress toward these goals. Other major outcomes include the establishment of four new terrestrial protected areas and completion of several community-level land management plans. The BWA has also improved communication between local communities and government agencies and conservation organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Micronesia Conservation Trust (MCT), allowing for better coordination and streamlined assistance to meet local priorities. To date, nine of the ten Babeldaob states now participate in the BWA and optimism for the future ecological health of coastal areas is on the rise.
Palau’s Reefs Show Resilience
Coral bleaching during the 1998 bleaching event was as high as 90% at some sites, with average mortality reaching 30%. The northern reefs of Palau suffered the most while most corals on fringing reefs around the rock islands in the southern lagoon escaped bleaching. Corals living in turbid waters adjacent to river mouth were spared as well. The shading factor of both the rock islands and turbid water is believed to have helped the corals to escape the bleaching. However, corals that were spared because of the turbid water soon died a few years afterwards as siltation increased due to increased soil runoff from the construction of the ring road around Palau.
Almost 10 years after the bleaching event, coral reefs of Palau that suffered the bleaching event showed tremendous recovery. Coral reef monitoring data by Palau International Coral Reef Center since 2001 shows rapid recovery at deeper water (10 m) followed by recovery at shallow (3 m). This recovery is believed to be facilitated by remnant and recruitment from less impacted habitats. Furthermore, recovery of the Acropora corals was highest on the western slopes of Palau, believed to be a result of high post settlement survival and favorable growth conditions. Recent unpublished larval dispersion model by Palau International Coral Reef Center showed higher larval retention on the west, consistent with the observed recovery and coral conditions.
Palau coral reef recovery shows resilience when key coral reef ecosystem functions are maintained (herbivory, stable substratum quality, water quality) and human impacts (land based) are managed.
- Relevance to livelihood—Conservation targets must be linked to quality of life. Focus shifted away from species and ecosystem conservation towards protecting community culture and way of life. This shift is significant in that BWA found natural allies in the traditional chiefs who, despite the modern democratic government, are still widely recognized as stewards of all commonly shared resources and defenders of the Palauan culture and way of life.
- Leadership —Identification of an individual who can act as project champion is key. The charismatic leadership of High Chief Reklai added credibility and authority to BWA’s message and engaged the traditional leaders of other states to rise to the same challenge.
- Relevant and sound science—Available and effective communication of sound scientific information is essential. The scientific data documenting the negative impacts of sediment on coral reef communities increased awareness in some and empowered many others by validating what they were already seeing on their reefs.
- Awareness of social, cultural and political context—Palau, much like other small cultures in a modernizing world, has complex, sometimes subtle but often intersecting social, cultural and political landscapes. Understanding and navigating through this complexity is not always given enough emphasis in conservation projects. In the case of BWA, young local conservation practitioners who understood the science and the culture were able to communicate the scientific information and leverage community support.
- Reducing/managing land based source of stress to the marine environment will help build resilience of the reefs through rapid recovery following major natural disturbances.
- Healthy herbivore populations on the reefs will facilitate coral recovery through high recruitment and post recruitment survival.
Palau: A Case Study (7:21)
Local leaders discuss the 1998 bleaching event in Palau.
- The Nature Conservancy
- The Wallis Foundation
- Government of Palau (in kind)
- Palau International Coral Reef Center (in kind)
- German Lifeweb
- US Fish and Wildlife Service
The Government of the Republic of Palau
Ministry of Resources and Development
PO Box 100
Koror, Republic of Palau 96940
- The Nature Conservancy
- Palau Automated Land and Resources Information System (PALARIS)
- Other government offices: Bureau of Agriculture, Bureau of Marine Resources
- Coral Reef Research Foundation
- Palau International Coral Reef Center
- Palau Conservation Society
- Belau Watershed Alliance (BWA)
Biodiversity Planning for Palau’s Protected Areas Network, An Ecoregional Assessment (download pdf, 4,418k)
Victor, S. Y. Golbuu, H. Yukihira, and R. van Woesik (2009). Acropora size frequency distributions reflect spatial variable conditions on coral reefs of Palau. Bulletin of Marine Science 85(2). (download pdf, 508k)
Moving Toward Measuring Our Effectiveness: The 2nd Meeting of the MC Measures Working Group and PICRC-JICA Coral Reef Monitoring Project Meeting. Palau, 2010. (download pdf, 4,588k)