Dispatch from the Field: Palau

Stephanie Wear, The Nature Conservancy’s director of coral reef conservation, is spending a week in Palau, visiting with locals and learning about what makes their reefs so resilient. Follow her journey here on Cool Green Science, on stephwear.com and on Twitter at @stephwear.

February 11: Mahalo Nui Loa

As my week in Palau comes to an end, I am filled with gratitude and hope for the future of coral reefs here.  Our closing dinner was held at the Palau International Coral Reef Center, complete with taro served five ways, fresh sashimi and enough tapioca to fill me twice over—an amazing finish to an amazing trip.

During the closing ceremonies, each person that had participated had an opportunity to share their thoughts. As with other end-of-day reflections throughout the week, I was struck by how powerfully the experience had affected each participant.  Some were too choked up to say more than “Mahalo” (Hawaiian for “Thank you”), but most shared more on their heartfelt gratitude, what they learned and most importantly, the responsibility they felt to share this experience with their family, friends and communities upon returning home.

What struck me the most is that these six days had turned a group that at the beginning had hardly known each other at all into family. Kimi Werner, a champion free diver and spearfisher, said it best when she referred to the group as her “newfound clan” — one that she promised to hold up and keep strong as each member returned home to continue their important work.

Our journey was also one of self-discovery. One participant said he now realized that he had had to come all the way from Hawaii to Palau to get to know himself.  As he put it: We already knew what to do — it is part of our ancestry — and coming to Palau was simply a profound reminder of where we came from and the incredible responsibility we have to pass on the legacy of a healthy and abundant sea.

For my part, I thanked the group for their endurance (it was an intense week) and for the inspiration each of them had given me to keep going forward in the quest to save the most threatened habitat on Earth. The evening ceremonies closed with the visitors getting up in front of our Palauan hosts, led by the musical talents of Uncle Sol (Sol Kahoohalahala) from Maui on ukulele. With song lyrics in hand, we sang Aloha O’e (“Farewell to Thee”) — and I admit there were tears in my eyes. There is just something about the sea and the way it brings us all together. For that I am grateful and send my many thanks to all that joined me in this adventure and to those that made it possible. Mahalo nui loa.

[Image #1: Participants from Hawaii share their reflections after a day visiting a local fish hatchery.  Image #2: One last view of Palau. Image credit: Stephanie Wear.]


February 10: Rock Islands Pick-Me-Up

Working to save coral reefs can be overwhelming — and, quite frankly, depressing at times. I usually maintain my optimism, but there are moments when I’m in need of inspiration and a reminder of what is possible.

Nothing cures me faster than a boat ride through the Rock Islands of Palau. I’ve been fortunate enough to take this boat ride (or kayak paddle) several times since my first trip here in 2004.  There is truly nothing like it. As I sit on the bow of the boat, wind in my hair, cruising through tight turns and narrow gaps between islands —feeling as if I am in an endless maze…I get this incredible overwhelming sense of happiness. A smile spreads across my face, I take in deep breaths, feeling exhilarated, and I think to myself — this is indeed my favorite place on Earth. This place inspires me — and compels me, really — to keep going and share the mission to protect reefs with others.

My time in Palau is highlighting these deep emotional connections so many of us have to the sea. I have seen this each evening when our learning exchange group gathers to share reflections and lessons from the day. Many times, the voices are strained from holding back tears, the words spoken are powerful, and we are all left knowing that we have been part of something special. A surprising example was the gratitude so many of our participants shared at the chance to eat turtle soup.  Unlike Hawaii, Palauans have been able to manage their turtle populations well enough that turtles are still a part of traditional meals held on the most special occasions. Many participants recalled the last time they had turtle, usually when they were small children. Eating the Palauan turtle soup reminded them of a beloved grandmother or uncle and their deep ancestral connections to sea.

In trying to tell others about the value of oceans and, more specifically, coral reefs, I often get caught up in the tangible values the sea brings us, such as food, jobs, and coastal security. I can easily forget the emotional and spiritual connection people feel with the sea and the inspiration and freedom that come with that. Fortunately, I have the ocean to remind me on a pretty regular basis. So much of our lives depend on a healthy ocean and coastal habitats. My colleagues with me this week are lucky enough to understand that.

[Image #1: The author in the Rock Islands.  Image credit: Chun-Wei Yi. Image #2: Another view of the Rock Islands. Image credit: Stephanie Wear.]


February 9: No Island is an Island

As I’ve related in a recent post from Palau, Palauans manage and enforce environmental norms on the island communally. In Palau, social pressure from both within and outside the family is an important part of natural resource management — and that pressure makes decisions stick.

This social quality isn’t just a product of Palau’s traditional culture. Palauans are intimately tied to their environment — just like the rest of us. The difference is, they are aware of it. That awareness is a gift, and it gives Palauans a good chance of ensuring that the resources they depend on persist into the future.

But there’s one little problem with this happy scene. When it comes to its own fish, Palau isn’t really an island.

Let me explain. Palau, like many other small island nations, hosts a substantial foreign fishing fleet. Commercial fishing vessels from other countries pay fees to fish the waters within the boundaries of Palau’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone). The problems with this situation are numerous — regulation is minimal in many places, foreign vessels have no long-term interest in sustainability, and countries hosting these fleets are receiving a tiny fraction of the value of the fish leaving their waters. In Micronesia’s waters (approximately 3 million square miles of ocean), the majority of tuna being fished are caught by foreign fishing fleets. Very little benefit from that catch goes to the countries or territories with jurisdiction of those waters.

So how does a country like Palau — with its great social reinforcements for sustainability — operate in this context?

They might take a similar road as Indonesia, which has banned foreign fishing vessels unless the catch is processed in Indonesia (called an integral process in the fishing trade). In addition, by 2017, all foreign vessels in Indonesia must be manned by Indonesians. While these steps won’t solve all problems, employing Indonesians — who have a greater interest in seeing their resources thrive over the long-term — is certainly better than foreign visitors taking what they want and leaving.  (And I’m not even touching on the problem of illegal fishing, which is a chronic and pervasive problem globally.)

Palau hasn’t figured it out yet, but something tells me they will. I’m impressed with how Palau has joined forces with neighboring countries and territories in Micronesia and Melanesia to form the Nauru Agreement, a groundbreaking pact that could help save tuna from disastrous overfishing. The signatories, referred to as PNA (Parties to the Nauru Agreement), have agreed to jointly set criteria for distant fishing fleets — including a standardized licensing process, access fees, observer program and coordinated surveillance. These sorts of efforts go a long way towards keeping licensing fees fair.  While the historical trend has been for foreign fleets to play countries off each other to see who will offer the cheapest entry into their fishing grounds, efforts such as the Nauru Agreement go a long way toward keeping licensing fees fairly and fully priced. Having a fairly priced entry into the fishery, acts to limit the amount of fish taken as well as compensate the resource owners appropriately.  In fact, the PNA have become known as the “OPEC of tuna” because they are controlling access to tuna in their waters, thus increasing the benefits for Pacific Islanders (and a world that likes eating tuna). These waters supply 25% of the world’s tuna, with an estimated value exceeding $2 billion per year.

And I’m also impressed to learn that there are foreign boats under arrest for illegal fishing in the Koror harbor in Palau. That tells me the pact is working.

Of course, things are not perfect here, and Palau is not immune to the problem of overfishing.  As long as there are fish in Palau, Palau is not really an island. The pressures of global resource demands know no boundaries, and protecting those resources is always a work in progress. But by having a great communal ethic for responsible natural resource use and then reaching out to neighboring countries with innovative management schemes, Palau stands a chance to make it work.

[Image #1: A local fisherman’s catch. Image #2: Foreign fishing vessels under arrest. Image credit: Stephanie Wear.]


February 7: A Visit to a Bai, and a Lesson in Law Enforcement

Today I visited a bai, the traditional men’s meeting house in Palau. A bai is a long, spectacularly decorated wooden structure with a triangular roof that rests on beams and is built without nails, so that it can be disassembled. They are amazing. I’ve wanted visit one ever since I first visited Palau seven years ago, and it did not disappoint.

We visited the bai for Melekeok state, home to the high chief Reklai, the second highest ranking chief in Palau.  During my visit I learned about traditional Palauan decision-making processes as well as how laws here are enforced, which gave me some new insights into why it’s so difficult to protect the environment in many parts of the world.

Palau is comprised of 16 states, each with 10 chiefs and all of whom are ranked by clan status.  The highest-ranking chief from each state, the paramount chief, sits on the Council of Chiefs.  When chiefs gather to discuss problems of the village, they enter the bai and do not come out until they have reached consensus. If they cannot reach a decision, the four highest-ranking chiefs step outside the bai and sit on designated rocks, where they come to a decision.  This is then shared with the rest of the chiefs and the village.

Today’s focus was on enforcement of environmental laws, and so I heard about how offenders are dealt with. Village elders recounted specific stories, naming names along the way and describing various offenses, including fines and other penalties… usually for taking fish that wasn’t theirs to take.

When someone violates rules of the village, they come before the chiefs — but they don’t come alone.  They come with their families — mothers, uncles, sisters, etc., and the families plead their case. It is a great shame upon your family to bring them before the village elders.

And that peer pressure and shame have proven to be very effective in enforcing norms in Palau. Think about it: How would you feel if your father had to be humiliated in his community for something that you did — as well as share in the punishment?  Wouldn’t you think twice?

Palauans believe that environmental transgressions are social ones, too; they understand that, when someone takes or destroys a natural resource, it affects everyone, and the impacts can be long-lasting or even irreparable. How do you measure that? How do you exact a penalty that matches the crime? In Palau, there are monetary and material penalties (hefty fines or loss of equipment, including things such as boats).  Their fines match the crime. Not surprisingly, repeat offenders are rare.

Choosing proper penalties for environmental degradation is a perennial topic of conversation for marine conservationists all over the world. Such penalties are weak in many places and for many situations; judicial systems also often don’t enforce the laws already on the books. We see this at every level, from poacher to corporate polluter.

A big part of the problem is that most contemporary societies don’t really view most actions that hurt the environment as social acts. From driving a mile to the grocery store to polluting a waterway to not buying energy that’s renewable when you have the option, people see their habits as individual ones, not ones that add up and have a social cost. But most societies don’t have collective penalties for environmental transgressions, either. In Palau, the environment is everything, and the country’s social norms reflect that. It will probably take something drastic to make the rest of us realize that our resources really are limited and that we need to take greater measures to hold people accountable. Palau’s resort to social shaming in the service of the greater good might seem drastic to us; but it clearly works.

[Images: Two views of the Melekeok bai. Image credit: Stephanie Wear]


February 6, 2012:  A Sea That Unites Us

Here on Palau, I am just back from our first day of a learning exchange between several communities spread across the Hawaiian Islands, the country of Palau, and the territory of American Samoa.  Today we went to Palau’s Capitol Building, which was modeled after the U.S. Capitol and was built as a symbol of Palau’s democracy. The neoclassic architecture, complete with a domed building, stands out in a landscape surrounded by forest and crystal clear blue waters.

We were welcomed at the Capitol by Palau’s Council of the Chiefs.  There are 16 high chiefs in Palau, and we heard from many of them about values they and we share in protecting the environment for people.  We brought gifts and shared in some amazing moments — like when our Hawaii delegation chanted oli’s (Hawaiian chants) to connect their ancestors to those of the Palauans, and to share their gratitude for the welcome extended by the high chiefs.

I got emotional at times like this, I must admit. Something really special happened in that room. It was powerful to be sitting among so many like-minded folks, in a formal government building while oli’s were exchanged by people using words of their ancestors. I won’t soon forget it.  We felt fortunate to hear from the chiefs as they shared their passion for protecting their region’s natural resources for the future.

The words of one chief continue to resonate with me. He said, “The sea does not divide us — it brings us all together, it unites us.” He spoke of the ocean’s waves, and how the same waves that reach the shores of Palau also make their way to American Samoa and Hawaii.  He’s right: the ocean connects all people to all places.  The theme of connection is sure to resonate throughout our week together, and what it means will be something I continue to discuss with my colleagues.

But it’s a theme that has yet to resonate with most people elsewhere. Even though people depend for their very lives on the sea, most still don’t understand that. We might understand how deeply we all need clean air or productive land, but the ocean as a symbol of global unity is basically invisible to the public — and that lack of visibility diminishes whether people think about the ocean as a place that needs protection and care.

Maybe we need to frame the importance of the ocean in terms of self-preservation. In protecting the oceans, we protect and care for ourselves. The planet’s “circulatory system” of ocean currents functions much like the arteries of the human body, nourishing and rejuvenating life at sea and on land. Oceans are absolutely vital to how the planet stays alive, and we should have a much better understanding of it than we do.

All of us struggle in conservation with how to make these connections real, meaningful and immediate to people who can’t see the underwater wonders of Palau or hear the passion of these exchange participants. How do we connect the sea to the most basic needs that we all have as humans — and in doing so, create an opportunity to preserve those resources for the future?  I have a feeling this week will give me a lot of opportunities to ponder this immense challenge.

[Image:  Stephanie Wear and her colleagues in Palau. Image source: Stephanie Wear]


February 5, 2012:  Greetings from Palau!

I’ve just returned to one of my favorite places on the planet: Palau, a tiny country with less than 20,000 citizens in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — a tiny speck on the map. For what it lacks in size, Palau makes up for with some of the most stunning scenery both above and below the sea’s surface.

Stepping off the plane, I was greeted by the sweet smells of the tropics, salty humid air and darkness. Coming and going from Palau seems to always take place in the middle of the night, which means I’ve never managed to get an aerial view. In fact, I’ve only seen it from above in scenes from episodes of Survivor: Palau! Before that television show, most people had never heard of this wonderful country. Now it’s clear the secret is out. Each time I return, tourism has expanded — the tour boats are full — and the local people seem as happy as ever to share this long-kept secret.

It’s easy to see why Palau’s coral reefs have been named one of the seven underwater wonders of the world. The reefs are thriving; in fact, coral colonies can be seen growing on top of each other. This was not the case 14 years ago when, in 1998, Palau was hit by a global mass bleaching event. Within weeks, the vibrant, colorful, teeming-with-life reefs were barren, colorless and quiet.

Yet, those vibrant reefs are back and showing signs of incredible recovery. This is one of the most exciting and hopeful things a coral reef scientist can hear. Given the state of much of the globe’s coral reefs, it is easy to lose hope and hand down the death sentence for reefs — but there are reefs in Palau and around the world that just keep coming back, giving us real hope and a rationale to keep on working.

This week I am in Palau with a group of community members and Nature Conservancy staff from the Hawaiian Islands. Our Conservancy colleagues from Palau are hosting us, and together we are going on a journey of discovery to better understand what is happening in Palau, both on land and in the sea. We will be visiting villages, speaking with village elders and chiefs and learning about how Palau is managing its natural resources using traditional methods and laws. What we learn on this journey is sure to provide insight into how to best protect and ultimately save coral reefs from their threatened demise.

Follow us on our journey — if it is anything like Palau’s coral reefs, it will be colorful and inspiring.

[Image: Aerial view of Kmekumer, Rock Islands, Republic of Palau. Image source: Jez O’Hare]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. I was just in Palau for the month of January, it was truly amazing!

  2. Beautifully written blog, Steph!! Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

  3. Stephanie,I have just had some time to read your blog – your passion for protecting our environment and most especially the oceans and the reefs is just amazing and I now understand your deep love for Palau. You and your team are doing a tremendous job to protect the earth for future generations. I am very proud of all that you do and to have you as my daughter-in-law and mother of my grandchildren. Love you. Geri

  4. Completley cool.

    Oh! They help fish.

    Really neat!

    All around in the ocean.


    Ready for a challlenge.

    Emily doesn’t like them.

    Emily loveves them.


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