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Palau School of Trevally,  Photo Credit: The Ocean Agency/Ocean Image Bank
Palau School of Trevally, Photo Credit: The Ocean Agency/Ocean Image Bank

A 'First of its Kind' MPA

The Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS), enacted by the Palau National Congress in 2015, is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPA) in the world. It was the first MPA of its kind, protecting 80% of a country’s national waters in a fully protected no-take zone. The Sanctuary came into effect on January 1, 2020 with support from the Palauan government and several NGOs.

The PNMS protects a vast array of marine life and unique geological features within its 475,077 km2 area. Eight hundred marine vertebrate species call the PNMS home, including nearly 30 different marine mammals and 60 shark and ray species, though these numbers are likely underestimates, as the biodiversity of the PNMS remains understudied. At least nine species found within the PNMS are on the IUCN Red List, including critically endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles and endangered blue whales, white sharks, and great hammerhead sharks. The Sanctuary encompasses Palau’s pelagic zone, which contains over 400 seamounts and sea knolls, as well as the Palau Trench, which reaches depths of 8000m below the surface. This abyssal zone of the PNMS has yet to be explored, but scientists believe it could be home to dozens of species of fish and invertebrates, some of which could be novel to science.

Photo Credit: Palau International Coral Reef Center
Photo Credit: Palau International Coral Reef Center

An MPA for and by the People

Not only will the sanctuary safeguard Palau’s unparalleled biodiversity, but the PNMS also represents an important contribution to the culture, economy, and sovereignty of the country and its people. The Palauan name for the PNMS is “Euotelel a klingil a debel Belau”, a phrase which encapsulates the cultural importance of the marine sanctuary to the people of Palau, who have a long history of ocean stewardship. The sanctuary’s no-take regulations align with the indigenous Palauan practice of “bul”, a tradition of leaving ecosystems undisturbed to prevent over-extraction by humans.

The 20% of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone outside of the PNMS remains open to fishing. The government legislation that designated the PNMS also created new rules for this fishing-permitted area, such as creating regulatory zones that prioritize Palauan fishers and raising the export tax for fish caught by foreign fleets, which returns the benefits of the adjacent protected area to the people of Palau.

Planning for Success Across Palau

The Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC), our Blue Spark partner organization, is one of Palau’s leading conservation organizations. The organization collaborated with scientists from around the world to conduct baseline studies before the establishment of the PNMS and created a robust, 10-year Science and Monitoring plan for the Sanctuary with funding from the United Nations Development Programme.

Even before the establishment of the PNMS, Palau was a trailblazer in marine conservation. The Sanctuary joins 29 existing marine protected areas managed by the Palau Conservation Society, fostering expansive connectivity between Palau’s coastal and pelagic ecosystems. This broad network of conservation efforts could increase the country’s climate resilience by reducing bycatch and preventing overfishing, which will allow Palauan communities to rely on its surrounding waters for food among other ecosystem and human benefits.