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Palau: Reason for Ocean Optimism

06/09/2015 10:34 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016
© Wayne Sentman

Efforts to conserve the world's oceans are continually challenged by both what people put into them, and the rates at which we are taking biodiversity out of them. Awareness of these problems is at an all-time high, and yet I often struggle to find examples of places where people have gone beyond awareness to actually adopt and practice ocean-friendly behaviors. But rest assured that there are still "hope spots" in the world's oceans, ones that remind us of the benefits that occur when people and governments prioritize marine conservation. The island nation of Palau is one of them.

Consisting of approximately 250 islands, Palau is located in the Pacific Ocean region known as Micronesia. Though small in population (approximately 21,000), Palau has gained global prominence as a conservation leader in recent years through bold actions that redefine the value of the ocean to both Palau's people and to the world.

In 2009, the government of Palau announced that it would make the entire nation a sanctuary for sharks, the first of its kind on the planet. The act completely forbid commercial shark fishing within Palau's Exclusive Economic Zone, an area of roughly 600,000 square kilometers, and sent a bold message to the world that overfishing of sharks should not be tolerated by Pacific nations -- not only because healthy shark populations are good for the oceans, but also because they are good for the economy. In fact, due to Palau's strong market for snorkel and scuba ecotourism, a single live reef shark is worth roughly US$1.9 million over its lifetime (compared with a value of US$108 for a dead shark). The designation of Palau's shark sanctuary fueled a global campaign, and today 10 other countries have followed suit, creating more than 4.9 million square miles of shark sanctuary.

Palau is once again placing itself in the marine conservation spotlight as it is poised to become the first country to create a national marine sanctuary that will encompass more than 80% of its Exclusive Economic Zone and prohibit all industrial-scale fishing, foreign fishing, and exports of catches. When fully established, the visionary marine protections established in Palau's national marine reserve will once again serve to inform world leaders and demonstrate how the economic benefits of long-term marine resource preservation can vastly outweigh short-term resource exploitation. Through continued national actions that recognize the value of marine conservation, Palau is leading by example.

As someone who spends much of the year guiding ocean focused eco-travelers to the most pristine and vibrant ocean areas left, I have seen first-hand the thrill that travelers experience when swimming alongside reef sharks in healthy, predator dominated tropical-reef ecosystems. I am therefore not surprised to learn that the people of Palau are benefiting from a rising tourism valuation of its protected waters. The combination of sound environmental protection and a strong social record have landed Palau on the list of "The World's Ten Best Ethical Destinations" for five years running, and drawn global attention to this small island nation.

As we celebrate World Oceans Day this June 8, let Palau serve as both example and inspiration for how we can collectively move beyond ocean-conservation awareness to take real ocean-conservation action. In the words of Palau's president Tommy Remengesau, "It doesn't matter where you live around the world; we are all connected somehow and are impacted by what we do to the oceans and the health of the oceans and the seas."

Wayne Sentman is a conservation biologist, naturalist, educator, and director of international eco-travel programs for Oceanic Society, America's oldest non-profit dedicated to ocean conservation.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.