Environmental Issues in Palau

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Palau has been on the frontlines of combatting climate change and protecting marine resources. In 2011, Palau banned commercial shark fishing and created the world’s first shark sanctuary. In 2017, Palau began stamping the Palau Pledge into passports, reminding visitors to act in ecologically and culturally responsible ways. In 2020, Palau banned coral reef-toxic sunscreens and expanded its fishing prohibition to include 80 percent of its exclusive economic zone. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Environmental issues in Palau include inadequate facilities for disposal of solid waste; threats to the marine ecosystem from sand and coral dredging, illegal and destructive fishing practices, and overfishing; climate change contributes to rising sea level and coral bleaching; drought. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Palau has been on the frontlines of combatting climate change and protecting marine resources. In 2011, Palau banned commercial shark fishing and created the world’s first shark sanctuary. In 2017, Palau began stamping the Palau Pledge into passports, reminding visitors to act in ecologically and culturally responsible ways. In 2020, Palau banned coral reef-toxic sunscreens and expanded its fishing prohibition to include 80 percent of its exclusive economic zone.

International Environmental Agreements: party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Climate Change-Paris Agreement, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands, Whaling

Air Pollution: particulate matter emissions: 12.18 micrograms per cubic meter (2016 estimate); carbon dioxide emissions: 0.22 megatons (2016 estimate); methane emissions: 0.06 megatons (2020 estimate). [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

Recycling and Waste: municipal solid waste generated annually: 9,427 tons (2016 estimate); Total Renewable Water Resources: 0 cubic meters (2017 estimate). [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

Low Islands and Rising Sea Levels

Low ocean islands are particularly vulnerable to unusually high tides and sea surges. On some islands global warming and rising sea levels are causing the seas to wash over roads on the coast and flood houses. A rise of as little as four inches can cause serious flooding problems on some islands. Extreme El Niño and El Nina-related weather can produce serious damage.

Forty-two small island nations are threatened by the severe weather and rising ocean levels caused by global warming. Low-laying coral islands in places like the Maldives, Micronesia, Kiribati and Tuvalu are particularly vulnerable to sea level rises. No island there rises more than six feet above sea level.

Sea levels rose between 10 and 20 centimeters during in the entire 20th century, ten 10 times faster than rates observed in the previous 3,000 years. Sea levels are currently rising at a rate of around two millimeters a year. The rate could easily accelerate. Studies show that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than previously thought. If sea levels rise more than a meter 80 percent of the land on the Maldives would be lost. If that were to happen people left would either have crowd together on the land that is left or leave.


By some estimates one-third of fisheries around the world are operating at unsustainable levels and 70 percent are unable to withstand more fishing. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 70 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are fully fished, overfished, depleted or recovering. more than 57 percent of all fish stocks are “maximally sustainably fished” and only 7 percent of stocks as “underfished.”

Ray Hilborn, a fisheries scientist at the University of Washington, doesn't think the situation is as bad as it is made out to be when some scientists were saying that 70 percent of the world's fisheries were overfished. He told National Geographic: "The FAO's analysis and independent work I have done suggests that the number is more like 30 percent." Increased pressure on seafood shouldn't come as a surprise, he adds, since the goal of the global fishing industry is to fully exploit fish populations, though without damaging their long-term viability. [Source: Paul Greenberg, National Geographic, October 2010]

According to a United Nations report in the late 2000s, 28 percent of the world's fisheries were overfished or depleted at that time. Of the 17 largest fisheries around the world, 15 were either at maximum exploitation levels or are depleting the level of their fish resource base. Joshua S. Reichert, of the Pew Charitable Trusts told National Geographic, “The oceans are suffering from a lot of things, but the one that overshadows everything else is fishing.”

Illegal Ocean Fishing

Illegal fishing can refer to three things: 1) fishing for banned species such as toothfish and great white sharks; 2) using illegal nets or gear such as drift nets; and 3) fishing where one is not supposed to such as in exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of country that a fishing vessel doesn't have permission to operate in. An “EEZ” is an area of the ocean, generally extending 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers, 230 miles) beyond a nation's territorial sea, within which a coastal nation has jurisdiction over both living and nonliving resources.

Studies have shown that illegal and underreported fishing accounts for up to 31 percent of the world’s catch. The trade thrives in part because it is difficult to trace where fish originally comes from and regulations and documentation are minimal and easy to skirt.

According to the Washington Post: Fishing vessels and seafood processors rely on a shell game to deliver illegal and unreported catch...Ships fish at different spots on the high seas often for months at a time, using “transition vessels” to taxi the catch to market while they keep trolling for fish. Documentation of where the fish is caught is lax studies have found. Many of the fish, crab, shrimp and other products are rushed to Chinese processing plants, where low-paid workers fillet salmon, clean the guts of tuna and pull meat from crabs. Illegally caught fish are easily mixed at the plants with those that were caught legally.

Global Warming and the Sea

Global warming is causing ocean temperatures as well as air temperatures to rise. A 2005 report by a team headed by Tim Barett of Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that between 1955 and 2000, the oceans warmed by 0.7 degrees F. Because the oceans are so vast the energy needed to warm them even smalls amount is huge.

Sea temperature plays a critical role in the life of marine species and warming oceans are causing widespread and severe impacts. Globally, the average air temperature of the Earth’s surface has warmed by over 1 degree Celsius since reliable records began in 1850. Each decade since 1980 has been warmer than the last, with 2010–19 being around 0.2 degrees Celsius warmer than 2000–09. Sea surface temperatures are increasing too, as over 90 percent of the excess heat gained in the atmosphere from enhanced greenhouse warming is going directly into the oceans. [Source: Australian government]

Scientist have been surprised how even water at great depths is warming up. Water surface temperatures in the tropical Northern Hemisphere have increased at ten times the rate of global warming in the air since 1984. Increases of .5 degree to 1 degree F have occurred in the major hurricane and typhoon breeding areas in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans since 1906.

Endangered Coral Reefs

a healthy coral reef
Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in National Geographic, “Coral reefs are already threatened by a wide array of forces. Rising water temperatures are producing more frequent "bleaching" events, when corals turn a stark white and often die. Overfishing removes grazers that keep reefs from being overgrown with algae. Agricultural runoff fertilizes algae, further upsetting reef ecology. In the Caribbean some formerly abundant coral species have been devastated by an infection that leaves behind a white band of dead tissue. Probably owing to all these factors, coral cover in the Caribbean declined by around 80 percent between 1977 and 2001. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, National Geographic, April 2011]

The world has lost roughly half its coral reefs between 1990 and 2020. Even if the world could halt global warming now, scientists still expect that more than 90 percent of corals will die by 2050. Without drastic intervention, we risk losing them all. "This isn't something that's going to happen 100 years from now. We're losing them right now," marine biologist Julia Baum of Canada's University of Victoria, told Associated Press. "We're losing them really quickly, much more quickly than I think any of us ever could have imagined." [Source: Associated Press, March 13, 2017]

In the Caribbean the amount of reef surface covered by live coral has fallen about 80 percent in the last three decades according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. In the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Indonesia, reefs have lost about 1 percent of their coral coverage annually over the last 25 years.

Coral Reefs and Climate Change

The Earth's atmosphere and oceans are warming due primarily to greenhouse gases derived from human activities and this having a profound impact on coral and reefs. As temperatures rise, mass coral bleaching events and infectious disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent. Additionally, carbon dioxide absorbed into the ocean from the atmosphere has already begun to reduce calcification rates in reef-building and reef-associated organisms by altering seawater chemistry through decreases in pH. This process is called ocean acidification. Contributing factors that increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere include burning fossil fuels for heat and energy, producing some industrial products, raising livestock, fertilizing crops, and deforestation. [Source: NOAA]

Elizabeth Weise wrote in USA Today: Coral are vital to the health of the oceans. Although they cover only 0.2 percent of the ocean floor, they are home to at least a quarter of all marine species. They provide safety for juvenile fish and are home to the small organisms and fish which provide food for larger fish. Scientists estimate that the reefs account for 25 percent of fish caught in developing countries. [Source: Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, April 7, 2022]

Coral reefs can survive within only a relatively narrow temperature band. The coral that build them get much of their food from algae living in their tissues. When the seawater is too warm, the coral’s stress response is to expel algae, causing the coral to turn white. The process is called coral bleaching, and if it lasts too long, the coral can starve — turning a thriving ecosystem into a cemetery of dead shells.

Coral Bleaching

Coral bleaching is a phenomena characterized by the changing of coral color from brown, green and pink to bleached white caused by the death of algae within the coral. If the coral can’t reestablish its bond with algae, it starves or succumb to disease. After some coral reefs die they become covered with slimy, green algae and transform into “algae-strangled rubble fields.”

Bleaching is not only bad in its own right it also destroys important fisheries and contributes to global warming. Algae in coral and the sea absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. Species such as sea anemones, sponges, and giant clams can also suffer bleaching.

In the 1980s Peter Harrison, a marine ecologist at Australia’s Southern Cross University, witnessed the first recorded large-scale coral bleaching event. Diving off Magnetic Island in the Great Barrier Reef, he was stunned by what he saw. “The reef was a patchwork of healthy corals and badly bleached white corals, like the beginnings of a ghost city,” he told National Geographic. Just months before, the same site had bustled with tropical life in Crayola colors. “Many of the hundreds of corals that I’d carefully tagged and monitored ultimately died,” he says. “It was shocking and made me aware of just how fragile these corals really are.” [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, April 7, 2021]

Human Threats to Coral Reefs

Reefs are threatened 1) global warming; 2) pollution caused sewage and fertilizer; 3) coral mining; 4) industrial and agricultural run off; 5) sediment from deforestation; 6) dredging of harbors and channels; 6) the use of poisons and dynamite by fishermen; 7) commercial fishing; 8) sport fishing, scuba diving and tourism; 9) sediments from coastal development; and 10) the commercial exploitation of fish, corals, giant clams and other species.

If too many grazing fish are caught, algae grows unchecked and the coral polyps are deprived of sunlight. Careless thrown anchors and misplaced hands or fins day after day by scuba divers and snorkelers can also seriously damage fragile corals. Once destroyed by a carelessly tossed anchor, a reef needs 20 to 30 years to repair the damage.

Sediments from erosion block life-sustaining sunlight, choke the pores of sponges and causes corals to weaken and be overpowered by algae. Nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer causes suffocating algae blooms and increases plankton growth which can lead to population explosions of coral-damaging star fish. In some places conditions are so bad that the emphasis has shifted from documenting damage to accessing if and how the reef might be restored.

Helping Coral Reefs

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic: As global temperatures trend up, some scientists have taken to prepping — stashing hard corals in “living biobanks” to conserve as much diversity as possible. A holding facility in Sarasota, Florida, is already accepting U.S. specimens, while the nonprofit Great Barrier Reef Legacy and its partners have established the Living Coral Biobank in Australia, where a seaside “ark” will house the more than 800 hard-coral species from around the world.“This is something we can do right now: Collect every species and tag them and keep them alive indefinitely, for genetic studies and, if possible, to repopulate the oceans with species extinct in the wild sometime in the future,” Charlie Veron, one of the biobank’s founders, told National Geographic. “It’s up to us to use every tool we have to keep reefs alive. My belief is, we can’t not do this.” [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, April 7, 2021]

In February 2017, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg helped launch an initiative called 50 Reefs, aiming to identify those reefs with the best chance of survival in warming oceans and raise public awareness. His project partner is Richard Vevers, who heads the XL Caitlin Seaview Survey, which has been documenting coral reefs worldwide. "For the reefs that are least vulnerable to climate change, the key will be to protect them from all the other issues they are facing — pollution, overfishing, coastal development," said Vevers, who founded The Ocean Agency, an Australian organization seeking new technologies to help mitigate some of the ocean's greatest challenges. If the reefs remain healthy and resilient, "they can hopefully become the vital seed-centres that can repopulate surrounding reefs." [Source: Associated Press, March 13, 2017]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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