Meet Jennifer Koskelin. Together with her team, she originated the implementation of a National Marine Sanctuary that covers over 80% of the maritime territory of the small Micronesian country of Palau. She also created the Palau Pledge, a global reference for sustainable tourism.
Palau is an independent Micronesian country located in the North Pacific Ocean, very close to Indonesia. With approximately 500 islands (six populated) and a population of just 20,000 people, this island nation covers an area as large as France. In Palau, Micronesian traditions are very strong: their traditional clan system still operates today.
It is these same traditions that have enabled the success of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, a marine protected area of 500,000 square km implemented in 2015 that covers over 80% of the country’s exclusive economic zone. A practice highly respected by the Palauan, the bul, which is the Micronesian equivalent to the Polynesian rāhui, came naturally as a solution to contemporary ocean conservation challenges. “We do not have the financial or technical means to monitor our vast maritime territory and therefore we could not afford to choose a managed marine area, complex to monitor but also to understand for our population. With this strict no-take fishing area, inherited from the tradition called bul, the population immediately felt concerned and committed to protecting its Ocean,” says Jennifer.
This ambitious decision came in response to the decline of local fish stocks, a direct result of the agressive fishing activities carried out by Japanese fisheries for more than 30 years. “Micronesia is the preferred territory for Asian fishing vessels. In Palau, what is caught is directly frozen and then exported internationally. We got to the point where we didn’t even have fish to offer to our own tourists anymore,” says Jennifer. Today, 20% of the maritime territory of Palau is reserved for local fishermen, and the resources fished cannot leave the country.
For the Palauan government, the choice was not very difficult: the tourism industry, which depends entirely on the natural environment of Palau, corresponds to approximately 50% of the country’s economic resources. Fishing benefits foreign countries but accounts for only 1% of local economic resources.
Following this line of thought, the Palau National Marine Sanctuary was conceived as a tool to propel the local tourism industry. Just a few years ago, the country would let in all types of tourists, without being mindful about the consequences on the local environment or culture. Today, the marine sanctuary enables Palauans to target a certain category of visitors, one that shares the same values. “We did a very extensive market research looking at the economic benefits of this marine protected area. The results were very promising: for a country like Palau, whose tourism industry relies on its natural resources, establishing a large and strict marine protected area is one of the best commercial arguments a country can offer.”
To support the marine protected area, Jennifer and her team have created an innovative tool, considered a global reference in sustainable tourism: the Palau Pledge. The concept? A short declaration stamped in the passport of each tourist entering the country. Thanks to this signed declaration, each visitor commits to respecting the local environment and culture. In addition, an awareness video is broadcasted in each airplane that lands in Palau and a tourism tax is directly allocated to the management of the marine sanctuary.
Islands Voices is a group of civil society ambassadors from several Pacific countries, united to strengthen international collaboration for ocean conservation. This group meet at the beginning of June in French Polynesia; a gathering co-hosted by the French Polynesian Federation of Environmental Associations Te Ora Naho, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bertarelli Foundation.
Written and translated into English by Pauline Sillinger, sustainable development consultant for Pew French Polynesia.