Oceans and climate change

How a small island state is taking the lead in ocean and island conservation


Much attention has been focused on the impacts of climate change on water, forests and society as a whole. But what about our oceans?  For decades, oceans have been fundamentally threatened by the effects of climate change, absorbing carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Rising sea-levels, acidification and changes in temperatures continue to threaten coastal and marine ecosystems, as they will seriously alter coastal development and marine activities.

Oceans cover about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, but even the deep blue has its limits.

If we keep closing our eyes, the effects of climate change on the oceans will become even more dramatic in the future.  The good news is that solutions exist: many countries have implemented a set of critical adaption measures to protect the ocean and reduce the fatal impacts of climate change on our marine resources.

One of the countries taking a lead in the matter is a small island state that refers to itself as a big ocean nation: the Republic of Palau. Located in the Northern Pacific and spreading across 350 islets, its 21,000 inhabitants are born with a deep connection to the sea.

Maybe it is for this reason that local communities have worked hard to ensure a sustainable use of their marine resources. When illegal fishing and poaching began to rise, the authorities realized that a nationwide strategy was required to increase resilience of marine ecosystems to counter the impacts of climate change. To secure livelihoods for future generations and marine life, a countrywide system of connected protected areas, including reefs, lagoons, a sardine sanctuary and mangroves were implemented. While they are managed in a traditional manner, the government provides financial, technical and institutional support for their upkeep.

The basis for this initiative is Palau’s Protected Areas Network Act, a policy that was awarded with the Future Policy Award of the World Future Council. It was recognized as innovative solution because it institutes a large network of protected areas, ensuring long-term sustainable use of resources, and implements management regimes and monitoring programmes that put local communities and their needs and traditions at the center of action.

To date, thirty-five protected areas have been assigned the goal to protect 30 % of near-shore marine resources and 20 % of the terrestrial environment by 2020. This exceeds any conservation goals agreed by the international community.

Protecting sharks – benefiting the economy

For Palauans, however, action does not stop here. In 2009, the entire territorial waters were declared a sanctuary for sharks. According to the Shark Haven Act any sharks caught in the nets or lines of other fisheries have to be released unharmed – with violators facing substantial fines. The decision for creating a shark sanctuary represented a political milestone and can serve as a role model for global shark conservation.

Interestingly, the creation of the shark sanctuary has benefitted the local economy. An increase in shark diving tourism has contributed significantly long-term tourism revenues. Currently, the local shark diving industry contributes US$1.2 million in salaries to local communities and generates US$1.5 million in taxes for the Palauan government annually.

As concerns about climate change are once more on the rise, the interrelationship between oceans and climate change must be recognized, understood, and incorporated into any future climate change policies, to protect our oceans for our future generations.

Monday, September 15th, 2014