Scientists consider Palau to be leading the world in sound fisheries management

A paper entitled, Working with, not against, coral-reef fisheries, was recently published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal, Coral Reefs by an eminent coral reef scientist, Professor Charles Birkeland, who is based at the University of Hawaii where he has been for the last 17 years.  Before going to Hawaii, he was at the University of Guam Marine Lab for 25 years.  While in Guam, he did some work in Palau, including the first Rapid Ecological Assessments of Palau’s marine environment and underwater surveys after the 1998 bleaching event to determine its impacts on Palau’s coral reefs.  Professor Birkeland has written and edited three books on coral reef ecology and was the 3rd President of the International Society for Reef Studies.

In this paper, Professor Birkeland talked about how Palauans wisely manage their resources in a manner that increased production and sustainability.  “By setting aside 80% of the

waters in their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) as no fishing zone, and allowing fishing in the remaining 20%, they are working with, not against, their fisheries.  It seems as if Palauans are born as fishermen and just know the biology of their fishes”, stated Professor Birkeland.  The open-ocean fishes travel widely and where they are protected, they may grow close to the carrying capacity of that area, so they will tend to move to where they are less crowded, which is not a protected area and where they get fished.  Thus, the protected area is important because it continually replenishes the stock that are harvested in the non-protected area.

Professor Birkeland explained the importance of having both a protected area and an open area.  Having an open area to receive the spillover from the protected area helps to increase production within the protected area by reducing the crowded conditions in the protected areas.  If there is no protected area so fishing is allowed in 100% of the area, they will reduce the reproductive stock, which in turn, reduces the production of new fish.

Palau has a record of supporting the resource management practices proposed by local districts.  Supporting the local stakeholders has proven to be the successful approach. The lack of long-term success in tropical nations in which the governments promoted fishing to capacity for national profits has been abundantly documented.  Palau stands out as a leader in wise fishery management.  Palau is now internationally respected for making its national income in the global economy from tourism, while keeping the consumption of natural resources local and sustainable.

To better manage reef fishes, one needs to understand their physiology.  Reef fishes, such as keremlal (snapper), tiau (grouper) and mellemau (parrotfish) are relatively slow-growing, long-lived, with unpredictable recruitment, and tend to be faithful to a particular reef.  For these reasons, they are easily fished out, forcing the fishermen to keep going farther in order to get fish. Offshore fishes, such as skipjack and yellowfin tunas, on the other hand, grow much faster, have shorter life-spans, offer more reliable reproduction and move over a wide area and quickly replace those that have been harvested.

Studies of restaurant menus in Hawaii showed the menus had reef fishes between 1928 and 1940, but when tourism increased dramatically after World War II, the reef fishes were not able to sustain the increased demand.  From this experience, nearly all fish on Hawaiian menus are now either offshore Hawaiian species, imports, and/or maricultured fishes – not reef fishes.  Professor Birkeland notes that Palau can take a different path and avoid what happened in Hawaii, “For Palau, Palauans can probably continue to catch reef fishes for their family, but restaurants and hotels should be supplied by offshore fishes only from the 20% of the EEZ, and from mariculture.”