Reforming Palau’s Data-Poor Reef Fisheries through Community-Based Approaches



Babeldaob, Ollei, Palau

The challenge

Palau is composed of 12 inhabited islands and over 700 islets stretching over 700 km. It has numerous island and reef types, including volcanic and raised limestone islands, atolls, barrier reefs around much of the main island cluster, and fringing reefs in the south. Palau has the most diverse coral fauna of Micronesia, including approximately 400 species of hard corals, 300 species of soft corals, 1400 species of reef fishes, thousands of invertebrates, and Micronesia’s only saltwater crocodiles.

Aerial view of Palau known as "70 Mile Islands" as well as the rich coral reef surrounding them. Photo © Ian Shive

Aerial view of Palau known as “70 Mile Islands” as well as the rich coral reef surrounding them. Photo © Ian Shive

For centuries, Palau’s waters have provided sustenance. The Northern Reefs – the second largest fishing ground in Palau – are depended on by fishers and the surrounding communities for food, livelihoods, and income. In fact, Palauans have some of the highest per capita fish consumption compared to other regions in the Pacific. But modern fishing practices and a growing tourism industry have increased fishing pressures here. Even though Palau has a deeply-rooted conservation ethic and a large network of marine protected areas (MPAs), the increased fishing pressure has not been able to keep stocks sustainable, and there is a growing awareness that protected areas alone are insufficient to maintain viable fish populations.

To manage a fishery sustainably, it is necessary to have information about the stock: how many fish, what species, how quickly they grow and reproduce, and how many can be harvested without putting the fishery in danger of collapse. But traditional stock assessments are so expensive and resource intensive, requiring years of data collected by trained experts at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per stock, that they are prohibitive for most fisheries, especially those in developing countries. And without the stock data to inform management decisions, data-poor fisheries like those in Palau’s Northern Reefs can easily become overfished, threatening the livelihoods and food security of the people who depend on them.

Actions taken

In 2012, The Nature Conservancy established a pilot project in the Northern Reefs to assess stock status using data-limited stock assessment techniques, to improve fisheries management through a community-driven approach, and to rebuild fish stocks. From August 2012 to June 2013, trained fishers helped scientists collect data on species, size, and maturity for about 2,800 fish caught in Palau’s waters. They measured their own catch as well as fish for sale at the country’s only fish market, Happy Fish Market. Palauans like to buy their fish whole, so gutting market fish to assess gonads was not initially a welcome idea with the fish sellers at the Happy Fish Market, but a $300 ‘rental’ fee negotiated with the local women sellers gave researchers access to 600 pounds of fish for data collection – a fantastic resource that also provided an opportunity to discuss Palau’s overfishing problem with a broad community of fish sellers and buyers.

Mature gonads of an emperor fish caught for the Palau Stock Assessment Project. Photo © Andrew Smith

The data-poor technique relies on sample size ratios to assess how much spawning is happening and how much is enough. At its most basic, the technique uses two pieces of local data, size of fish and maturity of fish, combined with existing biological information, to produce a ratio of spawning potential. As a general rule, if fish can achieve at least 20% of their natural lifetime spawning, a fishery can sustain itself. Less than that and the fishery will decline. While 20% is the minimum number, scientists hope to see fisheries achieving 30–50% of natural spawning. The findings in Palau were worrisome, showing that 60% of fish catch were juvenile, achieving just 3–5% of their lifetime spawning. The consequences of this were clear: if most fish are not reproducing, in a short time there will be no more fish.

Fishery managers and scientists have been presenting the findings of the pilot project at community meetings across Palau. With the new knowledge provided by the data, Palau’s northern fishing communities have moved quickly toward developing management strategies that could restore fish populations.

How successful has it been?

Everyone involved in the project, from scientists to fishers, are optimistic that Palau’s reefs will soon be on the road to recovery, but management and policy reforms are still needed. Palau is moving in this direction by developing policies that shift fishing access from modern open access to rights-based systems, such as reef assignment. Fishery managers are working to integrate fishery management tools, such as minimum and maximum size limits, protection of key spawning aggregations, and improvements in the design of the nationwide network of protected areas into their fishery management strategy. Stakeholders are striving to establish nationally mandated fishery data collection at key market locations as well as a long-term fishery monitoring program using improved underwater fish monitoring methods that will provide the data needed for data-limited stock assessments.

Measuring fish length as part of the Palau Stock Assessment Project. Photo © Andrew Smith

Finally, the success of any natural resource management depends greatly on enforcement and compliance. In March 2014, The Nature Conservancy and WildAid partnered to design an enforcement system for Palau’s Northern Reefs that is practical, affordable, and feasible to implement over a four-year time frame. The system provides strategic sensor coverage to key fishing areas, MPAs, and access ways. The strategy combines high-power video cameras and a robust VHF marine radio network with the strategic placement of buoys, patrol vessels, and a floating barge to provide a constant presence and fast response capacity throughout both Marine Managed Areas (MMAs).

Lessons learned and recommendations

  • Solving the overfishing problem is never easy – there are trade-offs and sacrifices.
  • Management options range from imposing size limits to closing areas for a certain length of time until fish populations can rebound. But these choices, which tend to be contentious and complicated to work out, are much easier to adopt and apply when fishers are part of assessing the problem and are engaged in discussing the solutions.
  • Cooperative effort between scientists and fishers has been key to the success of the project. Palauan fishers’ extensive knowledge and experience helped inform the scientific process and increase community awareness of the problem.

Funding summary

opens in a new windowThe David and Lucile Packard Foundation
opens in a new windowPalau Protected Areas Network Fund

Lead organizations

opens in a new windowThe Nature Conservancy
opens in a new windowWildAid


opens in a new windowPalau International Coral Reef Center
opens in a new windowPalau Conservation Society
opens in a new windowBureau of Marine Resources
opens in a new windowPalau Protected Areas Network Office
opens in a new windowMurdoch University


opens in a new windowVideo: A Breakthrough for Data-Poor Fisheries Starts in Palau

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