Tides of change: As fish and coral disappear, Palau faces the economic realities of climate change

BABELDAOB, Palau: The placid Pacific shimmers on the horizon.

For centuries, this vast expanse of water has been occasionally blustery, usually blue, always bountiful.



But the days of its benevolence have slowly slipped away. And so too has some of its marine life.

“The species (of fish) are still the same, but the numbers are getting really low … When I go fishing, I dont see schools of fish, just a few,” reflected part-time fisherman Junior Leeroy, who has made a living from the water for over three decades.

Leeroy and others who catch fish for a living say they know why.

Part-time fisherman Junior Leeroy says it is increasingly difficult to haul in large catches. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)



“The corals are dying, you can see it. The fish dont like to stay in the dead coral – they look for the live coral and go to another area,” he explained.

“I think its because of climate change, thats the reason – I truly believe that."

With hundreds of islands blanketed in thick green sitting in the clear ocean waters, Palau, a three-hour flight from the Philippines' capital of Manila, seems a postcard-perfect paradise.

But the looming spectre of climate change could change all that, its president Tommy Remengesau told CNA.

“Climate change is really the biggest threat to our food security, our economic security, our cultural and social way of life and the security that we enjoy as island people,” he said.

“It's a phenomenon that is real, (and) unfortunately it is affecting the source of food, which is our ocean."

READ: Rising sea levels threaten homes on pristine paradise of Palau

READ: Palau calls on big brothers and sisters in the global effort against climate change


According to 2019 data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Palaus nominal GDP for the 2016 – 2017 financial year was approximately US$290 million (S$400 million). Within the same year, tourism receipts totalled US$115.8 million.

Tourism activities have been responsible for about three-quarters of Palaus economic growth, said a 2014 IMF report, with more than 40 per cent of total employment in Palau coming from tourism-related activities. The country typically sees at least 100,000 visitors a year, said government data – more than five times the local population.

When it comes to fisheries, UN data states that the contribution of fisheries to the GDP in 2014 was 2.2 per cent of the national GDP.

A storm descends on the town of Koror. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

The president said that climate change is changing the terrestrial landscapes of Palau – and the things that help drive the economy: "We have noticed a very drastic change of patterns – drastic change of weather, drastic change of sea level rise, drastic change in the ocean temperature which results in coral bleaching and hence the overall fish population – where they migrate and how they breed."

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, oceans have absorbed more than 90 per cent of the excess heat produced between 1971 to 2010. This warmth is understood to be trapped by greenhouse gases.

For Palau, which boasts breathtaking biodiversity in its marine ecosystems, this spells trouble.

Take coral bleaching, where warmer water causes coral to expel the algae living in their tissues. This could result in the death of the coral, putting at risk the delicate ecosystem of marine life in the surrounding waters that relies on it.

“We are near the tropics – right about the equator. We have a very narrow range of temperatures and so the corals are used to living in that temperature. So even if it is one or 1.5 degrees (celsius) higher …. corals start to bleach,” explained chief executive officer of the Palau International Coral Reef Centre Dr Yimnang Golbuu.

The coral reefs in Palau are a key part of its biodiversity. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

"This increase in temperature is a big issue that we are facing and the models and the predictions are that the bleaching events will become more intense and more frequent … If we have more frequent bleaching events, then that would be harder for the reefs to recover – its not enough (time) to recover.”

With the destruction of this natural habitat comes the loss of marine life, added Palaus minister of natural resources, environment and tourism Mr F. Umiich Sengebau.

“In the last twenty years, we could go and catch a lot of fish but right now thats something that we sit down and shake our heads about – whats going on here?” he said.

“A lot of whats contributing to the fisheries decline is the (lack of) habitat, and that is caused by climate change. And when you dont have that habitat, you dont have its residents there.

“Next time you dive into the crystal blue water, there may be no fish or no corals.”

Recognising the need for conservation, Palau has been proactive.

Palau's emerald waters are a haven for divers. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

In 2009, it set up the worlds first national shark sanctuary, putting an end to all commercial shark fishing within its waters.

Six years later, it designated 80 per cent of its maritime territory as a fully protected marine reserve where activities such as fishing are not allowed to take place. Local fishermen will be able to fish in the remaining area.

At 500,000 sq km, or slightly larger than the US state of California, the sanctuary is being phased in over five years, and will become the sixth-largest fully protected marine area in the world.

This move has been widely supported, as locals understand its long term implications, said Mr Sengebau.

“Fishermen understand that these kinds of areas are important for us to withstand the kind of impact that we are facing on a global scale,” he said.

“We have had studies that have showed that in areas that are protected, we are seeing five times more fish, so that's really helping to repopulate those areas that are open for fishermen to fish.”


A soft breeze ripples through the trees, rustling the floral tablecloth anchored by woven baskets bearing a traditional Palauan spread.

Strains of guitar and harmonica accompany the chatter of excited conversations as a group of visitors to Palau tuck in.

This is the new face of tourism in the island nation, and climate change has had a part to play in its formation.

Locals ready a homemade meal for a group of visitors. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

“When tourism started in Palau, it was started by divers and Palau if youre a diver – its a bucket list, its one of the places you want to dive,” explained Mr Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl, chairman of the Palau Visitors Authority. “So when the market or tourism started growing, it grew around diving.”

But with Palaus reefs and ecosystem becoming increasingly affected, there was a need for an alternative option for intrepid travellers – community-based tourism.

Said Mr Tmetuchl: “That concept of not putting all your eggs in one basket came into play. So, what were doing now is that were moving inland and into the villages. Were creating lunches like this one and were rotating it around so everybody gets a chance to get an overspill of tourism benefits.

“And at the same time were creating experiences not related to the water, and in the event something does happen to the water, weve got a plan B.”

Take Jellyfish Lake,

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