Thanks to a marine ecosystem hailed as one of “The Seven Underwater Wonders of the World,” the Republic of Palau was chosen to play a starring role in the new 3D IMAX film “The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea.” The movie premiered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in March 2012 and will be shown at museums and IMAX theaters around the world.
Much of “The Last Reef,” which explores the underwater worlds of the earth’s coral reef systems and the challenges they face, was shot in Palau. The waters surrounding Palau, a tiny nation with only 20,000 people and eight major and 250 smaller islands, are home to 1,300 species of fish and 483 species of corals.
Although a mere speck in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles east of the Philippines, Palau has become a world leader in marine conservation. Its leaders realized years ago that concerted action must be taken to protect the seas of a nation whose economy relies on healthy fisheries and a burgeoning dive tourism industry attracted by its exquisite coral reefs.
“For small island developing countries like Palau, the reef is the essence of our survival. It is our culture, our way of life,” said Tommy Remengesau, Jr., president of Palau from 2001 to 2009 and current member of the Senate of Palau, at the film’s premier. “Our traditions and our lifestyle are all sustained by what the oceans and the reefs provide.”
Remengesau is no conservation newcomer. In fact, he has been a regional and international environmental leader for many years. It was during his presidency in 2005 that he spearheaded the Micronesia Challenge, a regional initiative in which several Pacific nations – the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands – joined Palau in pledging to conserve 30% of their coastal waters and 20% of their forests by 2020.
In 2003, Remengesau signed into law the Palau Protected Area Network, which set up the structure for a system of established private, state and local conservation sites. The protectors of these sites can apply for funding, which now comes from a $15 Green Fee paid by visitors to Palau. The work of PAN continues thanks to the more than $2 million that has been raised so far, and new sites are being added every year.
Through further legal action on another front, Remengesau sought to protect sharks, whose ranks were being decimated by foreign fishing fleets licensed to fish in Palauan waters. The fisherman were catching the sharks, cutting off their fins – later to be made into shark-fin soup and medicines – and throwing the finless sharks back into the water to die. He signed a law banning the practice in 2003.
Six years later, the nation’s current president, Johson Toribiong, declared Palau’s exclusive economic zone waters as the world’s first shark sanctuary at a meeting of the United Nations. In 2010, the government expanded the sanctuary’s scope to include whales, dolphins and dugongs, Palau’s most endangered animal.
Although Remengesau’s and Toribiong’s efforts have been instrumental in shaping the region’s environmental policies, there have been other major Palauan players as well. These include Noah Idechong, who has served as chief of Palau’s Division of Marine Resources and director of the Palau Conservation Society and is now the speaker of the 16-member House of Delegates of Palau. Idechong won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental “heroes,” in 1995, partly for his efforts to encourage local Palauan chiefs to revive the ancient practice of using a “bul,” or moratorium, to restrict fishing when stocks are low or endangered. This bul system is one of the principles that the local leaders and scientists look to in the actions they take as part of the Protected Area Network and has been an inspiration to other leaders throughout the Pacific region.
As former Palau President and current Senator Remengesau said in his remarks at the Smithsonian, “Out of fear of total extinction of our reefs and terrestrial resources resulting from carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, climate change, global warming, sea level rise, and increase in water temperature, we initiated the Micronesia Challenge. There is a need for mankind to find solutions to this destructive problem. Everyone and every region must do their part.”
And few countries are doing their part better than Palau.