Over a half century ago, Palau established its first Marine Protected Area (MPA), the Ngerukewid Island Preserve. Since then, Palau has created the Protected Areas Network (PAN), the first ever Shark Sanctuary, and the Palau National Marine Sanctuary.
Far before the adaptation of MPAs, however, Palauans demonstrated strong marine stewardship. Traditionally, when reefs faced threats, chiefs would impose a bul, or harvest moratorium to allow resources the chance to recover. In time, fisheries management has evolved through the combination of traditional knowledge and the establishment of MPAs.
In a paper published in the scientific journal, PLOS ONE, scientists from the Palau International Coral Reef Center along with collaborators from the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas Program, the Fisheries Ecology Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, the Centre d’Estudis Avancats de Blanes, Spain, and the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, investigated the effectiveness of MPAs in Palau. Authors of the paper, “Size, age, and habitat determine effect of Palau’s Marine Protected Areas”, include Dr. Yimnang Golbuu, Marine Gouezo and Dawnette Olsudong from PICRC along with collaborators, Dr. Alan Friedlander, Dr. Enric Ballesteros, Dr. Jennifer E. Caselle and Dr. Enric Sala.
Through this study scientists determined that Palau possesses some of the best preserved and managed coral reefs in the western Pacific. According to Dr. Alan Friedlander, the lead author of the study, “The biggest lesson to take away from this study is that with traditional knowledge and local engagement, the extensive network of MPAs in Palau provides important conservation and tourism benefits to the Republic, and likely provides fisheries benefits beyond their boundaries.”
During this study, researchers selected a group of MPAs within the PAN that were strictly no-take zones. They compared the marine communities found in these sites to the ones found in similar unprotected areas. On average, fish biomass in the MPAs was two times higher than in adjacent non-protected areas. Furthermore, the average biomass of top predators (groupers, sharks, jacks, snappers) was five times higher on average in the MPAs compared with areas open to fishing.
Size and age were the most important determinants of MPA success, with larger and older MPAs having the greatest amount of fish. A larger network of MPAs may benefit nearshore fisheries of the entire country by giving larger spawning adults protection and the potential to overflow into nearby fished areas. Larger protected areas contain a greater habitat diversity, which helps to conserve the entire ecosystem. In addition, the longer these areas are protected the more time the species have to mature.
“The results from this study is great news for Palau and demonstrates that if you put efforts into protection, you can see the benefits”, according to Dr. Yimnang Golbuu, CEO of PICRC and one of the co-authors of the study. “The state governments and local communities that manage these protected areas, the Protected Areas Network (PAN) Office and PAN Fund and other partners that support these protected areas should be congratulated for their success. By working together, we have demonstrated the value of protected areas to the world and the scientific community.”