A unique and diverse marine environment
The Republic of Palau is part of the Caroline Islands group in Micronesia, located in the Western Pacific Ocean in the geographic region of Oceania. Hundreds of coral and volcanic islands make up the Palau archipelago, situated on the Kyushu-Palau Ridge (KPR), an ocean floor feature in the centre of the Philippine tectonic plate. The geology is complex and varied, with the largest island composed mainly of volcanic andesite, with a vast mountain range, grasslands and jungle terrain, surrounded by thick mangrove forests and sandy beaches.
All but six of the islands are clustered within a marine lagoon protected by a barrier reef system stretching for 115km. The majestic ‘rock islands’ are raised coralline limestone structures covered in lush, green, tropical vegetation, deeply undercut by continuous wave action at sea level. The barrier reef merges with a fringed reef in the south. The reef systems, including the atolls, contain the most diverse coral fauna in Micronesia, the sparkling blue waters teeming with stunningly rich biodiversity. Other tropical marine habitats in Palau include seagrass meadows, algal beds, mud basins and tidal channels.
The marine environment of Palau is incredibly diverse, with more marine species existing here than in any other part of the world in an area of comparable geographic size, including more than 1300 species of reef fish, 300 species of soft corals, more than 400 species of hard corals, and seven out of the nine global species of giant clams, including an abundance of the brightly coloured, blue-green Tridacna crocea (Burrowing Giant Clam).
Historical Marine Protected Area (MPA) designation
The Republic of Palau has a long history of using MPAs to protect the ocean and fish populations from the impacts of overfishing and mineral extraction, taking the necessary remedial action when required. The establishment of a ‘no-take’ National Marine Sanctuary comprising 80% of its territorial waters (with the remaining 20% utilised for regulated local fisheries), was five years in the making.
Research into the effectiveness of the existing MPA system found most marine protected areas (experimental sites) had twice the biomass of commercially important species than unprotected areas (control sites), and five times the biomass of top predators (Friedlander et al 2014). These results provide the scientific data to assist the Palau government with the implementation of the marine sanctuary.
We will track the progress of the MPA in Palau, documenting its triumphs, its challenges, the environmental, social, economic and political factors behind its successes and failures, and its potential as a blueprint for marine protected area management that may be applied elsewhere.
Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs)
In 2010, the government of Palau declared a national marine mammal sanctuary within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 2017, a Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force study identified 19 cetacean species in Palau waters (IUCN 2017 Appendix 1), including Balaenoptera edeni (Bryde’s Whale), Physeter macrocephalus (Sperm Whale) and 11 oceanic dolphin species, including Stenella longirostris (Spinner Dolphin), Tursiops aduncus (Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin) and Globicephala macrorhynchus (Short-finned Pilot Whale).
The study indicated the presence of 5 beaked whale species, part of the Ziphiidae family whose global distribution is relatively unknown, due to their elusive nature and preference for deeper ocean habitats.
In 2017, two areas within the marine sanctuary were nominated as candidate Important Marine Mammal Areas. One was approved as an Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) to protect the most isolated population of Dugong dugon (Dugong) in the world, found within the reef. The second was granted Area of Interest (AoI) status for the conservation of cetacean species outside the reef system (IUCN 2017).
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Friedlander AM, Golbuu Y, Caselle JE, Ballesteros E, Letessier TB, Meeuwig JJ, Gouezo M, Olsudong D, Turchik A, Sala E. 2014. Marine biodiversity and protected areas in Palau: Scientific report to the government of the Republic of Palau. https://www.openchannels.org/literature/9746
IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force. 2017. Working to Implement Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) in the Republic of Palau, 30th October – 6th November 2017. Unpublished report. 32 p. https://www.marinemammalhabitat.org/download/working-implement-conservation-actions-important-marine-mammal-areas-immas-republic-palau/