THE BLOG
09/30/2014 04:28 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Q&A: 'My Country Will Not Go Down Without a Fight'

Palau is small, but its plans are big. President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. has colossal plans for his small island nation of 21,000 people. By creating the world's largest marine sanctuary -- the size of France -- he has deemed Palau's waters to be 80 percent protected. His goal: a no fishing zone which will "let the ocean heal" after decades of commercial fishing and poaching that has critically depleted the oceans. He hopes other countries will follow suit.

For decades, President Remengesau, who comes from a family of fishermen himself, witnessed the impacts of illegal, unregulated fishing, pollution, coastal runoff and other stressors. He feared for the future of the islands and culture, and most important the future of his children.

Not preserving the seas would be a crime, considering that Palau is home to some of the world's most scenic islands, lakes, and reefs in the world and contains some of the planet's greatest biodiversity, including 1,300 species of fish and 700 species of coral.

The President's ambitions have caught the attention of the international community; he recently met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss his conservation efforts, and this month he was awarded the Inspiring Conservation Award in New York by Rare, a Washington, DC-based organization that trains local leaders in over 50 countries to be environmental stewards.

Brett Jenks, CEO and President of Rare, said that, "Conservation is in Palau's DNA and in the blood of President Remengesau. Now he is setting an example for his peers. Rare is proud to have helped for the past two decades to build a constituency for conservation in Palau. We are pleased to see Palau not only being successful at home but becoming a beacon of hope for other nations."

During his visit to New York for the opening of the General Assembly at the United Nations, President Remengesau discussed his efforts to create this special zone with Anna Shen.

What prompted you to create the world's largest marine sanctuary?

As a fisherman, there was a time when I saw great stocks of fish, both inside and outside our reefs. On any given day, I could choose which fish to take. Now that is not the case. The fish stocks are smaller, both in terms of schools and number of fish. Our current course is definitely not sustainable. Conservation is in my blood, and in our blood as Palauans. We are born and raised and taught to conserve and always think about tomorrow.

I became alarmed at the rate of harvesting and how illegal poachers came not just for fish. The degradation that I saw inspired me to go beyond protecting the coral reefs, because we witnessed tons and tons of shark fins that were also being harvested by fishing vessels. We were given the excuse that that they were bycatch and unintentional catches. We saw turtles and dolphins being caught; these were not authorized catches.

In addition, Palau is famous for giant clams that are one hundred years old. The poachers would just take the clam's muscle because it is a delicacy in Asia. What I saw could not be sustained and it was depleting our resources much faster than what nature could keep up with. Over a period of years it became too obvious that unless something meaningful was done, we would find ourselves without food security. We would be affected as a people and our growing tourism industry would be impacted.

You once said that your forefathers did not know about science but they understood that people's health and prosperity fell and rose with the tides. Can you explain more?

When resources became scarce, my forefathers would declare a "Bul." Today, we might call this a moratorium. During this time, reefs would be deemed off limits during spawning and feeding periods so that the ecosystem could replenish itself. Certain areas, like Ngirukuwid, were given permanent protection because of their important biodiversity.

My goal was not conservation for its own sake, but to restore the balance between people and nature. The best science now confirms that our ancient approach to managing the oceans was sound.

This traditional ethos of the "Bul" is now enshrined in Palauan law: Article 6 of Palau's Constitution requires Palau's government to "take positive action" to conserve "a beautiful, healthful and resourceful natural environment."

Can you tell me about the process of creating the sanctuary?

Before we came up with the current plan, we wanted support in the region. This was an important starting point. We launched something called the Micronesian Challenge, which was a commitment by the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. We were hoping our neighbors would then look at Micronesian reef as a total ocean.

The challenge was to preserve the natural resources that are crucial to the survival of Pacific traditions, cultures and livelihood, and to effectively conserve at least 30 percent of the near shore marine resources and 20 percent of the terrestrial resources across Micronesia by 2020.

We knew that from traditional practices and knowledge that if you are going to preserve a reef, if you took a third of that and put it into a conservation area, this would help to prolong the richness of that reef area. Fish would be self-nurturing, and they would rebirth the reef. This would become a safe haven for them.

We then went out and looked for partners. Initial funding commitments, which required matching dollars, were originally made by The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International. The Global Environmental Facility, which is an international financing organization that addresses environmental issues, then made available the necessary 2-to-1 matching funding. With this generous funding assistance, we have already reached our 2020 targets.

When we saw our success, we decided to expand our concept of marine protection to our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 miles from our shores and thereby creates the largest marine sanctuary in the world. Within this zone, we plan to have a no-take zone in over 80 percent of the EEZ while we reserve 20 percent for local fisherman and domestic fisherman, which will support our eco-tourism industry, which already provides Palau with 50 percent of its revenues. The no-take zone is approximately 500,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of France, or the state of Texas. Nobody has done this before. Some countries have limited specific marine areas but no country has protected its entire EEZ from foreign commercial fishing.

Were there any roadblocks when you created the zone?

There was resistance at first but mostly from commercial interests who didn't want their access limited. In the beginning, some Chinese poachers came to fish on the near shore coral reefs and we had police officers confront them. Most of them fled, but one Chinese fisherman died. In our effort to search for the mother ship, two of our officers and one pilot were never found.

As for local opposition, there were some doubters in the beginning. However, our success is that as a community we have a grass roots-driven culture, and this is in our way of life. After a while the detractors gave up after they saw the success of what we were doing.

How did you and your team accomplish this all by yourself?

Actually we did not. Other organizations -- foundations, NGOs, conservation organizations, civic groups -- they all play a role and are important partners because they have the technology and the information and research as to how programs are benefitting the communities that come up with sanctuaries. They also know how to implement systems to help other populations of tuna or other migratory fish. They also understand the values of ecotourism. We cannot simply be concerned that others are just locking up the seas but we must also find other sources of income such as ecotourism, or catch and release programs, or scuba diving. These are other activities that give people jobs and other economic opportunities.

Rare will play an expanding role though its unique focus on community involvement, participation and understanding.

One thing to note: We are missing the point if we simply declare that we have a marine sanctuary in Palau and that it is the only one of its kind. We need partners to say that this is a good thing. We need developed countries, financial institutions, and foundations to look at this and support it from different angles.

For example, we have a partnership that helps provide revenue-generating activity for citizens so that people do not have to fish for a living. We also need help with surveillance and marine enforcement -- maybe a drone, boats or technology that other countries have. We need partners to show us how to enforce these laws so we can remain a success story. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense has command centers with GPS and other technology that can tell you what is out there in the oceans. We only have two or three ships to monitor the area. The poachers will still use any opportunity to poach and we have to come out there all the time to watch.

How is climate change impacting the oceans?

The oceans are being affected by the impacts of climate change. You add acidification and coral bleaching and you can imagine the great stress factors affecting the reefs. We are seeing rising sea levels and erosion of soil -- some of our islands have been totally engulfed and people have had to relocate to higher ground. In the case of Palau, the islands are getting smaller in size, and this is affecting our neighborhoods and farms. We have had our share of typhoons and storms in the last year. We have brought these issues to the United Nations. They work to increase the fragile standard of living for our people, but then one typhoon can set us back for years. Vulnerability is a threat.

What are the qualities of leadership needed to impact the oceans?

We have to stop thinking only of our self-centered interests and think of future generations and what they will have to live with. We must look beyond our daily activities as humans and think of the long term to make a difference.

We hope we will be a case study. We want others to know you don't have to open the whole ocean to commercial fishing but if you conserve a portion of it, that sanctuary can do a lot of good to repopulate the other areas where there is fishing. We are happy that the U.S. is promoting conservation of at least ten percent of the world's oceans as announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

But doesn't the country lose out because they won't generate revenue from commercial fishing activity?

Well, there won't be any more fish to catch if we keep at it. In addition, we lose revenue from things like ecotourism if we ruin our oceans. We are a renowned scuba diving destination. We have done research - in fact, a live shark is worth almost two million dollars over its 70 or 80-year lifetime. This is research we conducted with the University of Guam and our Palau International Coral Reef Center.

Were there any moments of insight?

After we launched the Micronesian Challenge, others launched challenges to protect their oceans -- the Caribbean, Indonesia, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, New Caledonia, and other places. This is something we are proud of. If we can do it, they can too but just it takes the political will and justification to do it.