Palau’s Head of State (Pictured Above Diving with Dr. Sylvia Earle) Visits the Mission Blue Hope Spot Expedition
GERMAN CHANNEL, PALAU — For President Thomas Remengesau Jr., or “Tommy” as his dive buddies call him, ocean conservation is all about science, technology, political will and good policy. Indeed, protecting the ocean has defined his tenure as the leader of this pacific island nation of 22,000 people. Palau is small in terms of landmass, fitting seven times over into the state of Rhode Island. However, as both scuba divers and sharks know, there’s more to the story.
In terms of ocean area, Palau has an exclusive economic zone – a fancy way of saying its sovereign waters – the size of the Ukraine. And it certainly made waves in 2015 when President Remengesau declared 80% of this area a marine reserve off-limits to fishing or any other extractive activity. No country on the planet has set aside such a substantial portion its ocean territory solely for marine ecosystems to thrive.
Mission Blue recently completed its Hope Spot expedition to Palau where the team was investigating the health and challenges of this nation’s immense marine protected area. The upshot was a ringing endorsement for large-scale marine protected areas for both the positive effect they have on marine wildlife as well as the ecotourism that benefits from it. Of all the Hope Spots the team has explored on the planet, Palau, located in the Micronesian Islands Hope Spot, stood out for its abundance and diversity of marine life. The team had heard accounts of rampant plastic pollution, but found little evidence of it in their time there.
This expedition to Palau was the result of six months of coordination with the government of Palau, local conservationists, eco-tourism operators and partner organizations spearheaded by Kip Evans, Mission Blue’s Director of Photography and Expeditions. The expeditions which includes Brett Loveman, Director of Communications, captured video and photo content, above and below the water, that tells the story of marine conservation gone right in the Republic of Palau. In the coming weeks, Mission Blue will be releasing this content and hopes it provides inspiration to ignite public support for marine protected areas worldwide.
On November 4th, President Remengesau visited the Mission Blue Expeditions team aboard the Ocean Hunter III for a roundtable discussion about ocean conservation. Joining the president in discussion were Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue; Glenn Bucksbaum, President of the Baum Foundation; Rod Mast, President of the Oceanic Society; Fisk Johnson, CEO of SC Johnson and David Shaw, Managing Partner of Black Point Group. As with many discussions involving diverse stakeholders, the discourse proved insightful.
“I had to make the economic argument. I had to translate the value of conservation into dollar signs,” explained President Remengesau of his campaign to create Palau’s large-scale marine protected area. “So for sharks, we had to come out and say research and studies show that one shark is worth 1.9 million dollars over a 60 to 70 year life span. And a dead shark for a shark fin soup makes a couple of hundred dollars. This is grassroots information that is important for the stakeholders. Because they may not understand the scientific data and the interpretation of it.”
“One of the reasons that Palau is a shining Hope Spots of Mission Blue is that you, President Remengesau, are actually doing things that bring about change,” lauded Dr. Sylvia Earle. “The rest of the world, if they see how it works here, can be inspired to do that too. I wish they would do it with their exclusive economic zone. But it’s also about behavior, what people choose to do, or not to do.”
At one point the conversation turned to enforcement, with Mr. Bucksbaum asking President Remengesau how his government’s efforts to enforce the protected areas were faring.
“One of the first things we had to do was create an enforcement capacity. And this is something we’ve been able to do with the United States, Australia, Japan and NGO’s,” responded President Remengesau. “Because of these partnerships, we have a truly dedicated marine surveillance and enforcement bureau that goes out there to patrol. If we catch illegal fishing and there is something of economic value on their boat, we bring them in, confiscate the boat and process the people. If not, we disembark the fishermen and burn the boat on the high seas.”
As those who have spent time with Dr. Earle know, she is a wholesale endorser of human exploration of the ocean. And as the discussion drew to a close, in true form, she invited President Remengesau and the others for a dive to go visit the “president’s aquatic constituents”, as she put it. After a quick zip on the chase boat through German Channel, suiting up and splashing in, Dr. Earle and President Remengesau were in the deep making new friends. The marine life here in Palau is healthy indeed. See for yourself.
Back on dry land, at a reception honoring President Remengesau for his marine stewardship, with Palauan legislators and royalty in attendance, Dr. Sylvia Earle took the stage. She began with an anecdote of two presidents. “I love the story about you, President Remengesau advised President Obama that it was a good start to quadruple the the size of what was at the time the biggest marine protected area in the ocean, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Reserve,” said Dr. Earle. “But that it is far short of what you have done here: 80% of the exclusive economic zone! If the US did that, if Australia did that, if France did that – if the world would take note and do what you have done here, well, the planet would be more secure.”
At that moment, Dr. Earle presented President Remengesau with Mission Blue’s first Blue Heart award for ocean conservation. This award is given to recognize marine conservation leadership that is having global impact in bringing governments closer to the goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030.
“We would like to honor you here with Mission Blue’s first Blue Heart award,” said Dr. Earle. “It’s totally fitting that you should be the first individual to be recognized. Because no individual has done more, truly. Not just here for your country. But to inspire the world as a leader!”
Stay tuned for more blog posts, photographs and video content showing the inspirational conservation success that Palau has enjoyed thanks to its leadership in marine protection. This expedition was made possible by the generosity of the ACTAI Global Foundation and Glenn Buckbaum, as well as partnership with Oceanic Society and gear sponsorship from the ever-awesome dive equipment manufacturer, Scubapro.