Editor’s Note: This summer, the PICCC has been joined by Joseph Anastacio, a Palau native and current University of Hawai’i student, serving as an intern through the Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES). Below, Joe describes some of the climate change impacts he has witnessed in Palau.
Growing up, I always loved the ocean, because I come from a small island in the Pacific that was surrounded by it. Some weekends, we had fun at the Rock Islands, which is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Weekends also meant we could go fishing. I am from the Republic of Palau, which was a location of fierce battles during World War II. Although this was a very sad time in its history, today Palau has rebuilt from the war and is now world famous for its excellent diving spots, breathtaking Rock Islands, and unique marine lakes home to millions of jellyfish. It has also become known for its strong environmental and conservation efforts. However, even with these major conservation efforts, there is still a big threat to the Palauans way of living and everything Palau is known for. This threat is climate change.
The ocean is our way of life. It has been for thousands of years, and lately it has never been more important for our economy. The ocean is a vital part of existence in an isolated island because it is our primary source of food and other resources. You will find that fish is not only the source of protein from the ocean; there are sea cucumbers, clams, mangrove crabs, and other things that Palauans find delicious. Some time ago, Palauans found materials for tools in the ocean such as the tip of an adze for carving a canoe. Today, the biggest economic engine for Palau is tourism. More than a hundred thousand tourists fly to the Republic of Palau each year, which is more than six times the population of the country. They flock there to experience scuba diving in crystal clear waters full of marine life, see limestone rock islands covered with vegetation, and swim will millions of non-stinging jellyfish.
Unfortunately, multiple problems related to climate change have arisen that threaten to put everything in jeopardy. One problem is coral bleaching. Coral bleaching occurs more commonly when there is an increase in ocean temperature by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. An extreme example of this problem happened in 1998 when 48% of Palau’s coral reefs were bleached due to an El Niño that increased the ocean temperature. To date, there are areas that are still in the process of recovering. As if that was not enough, two major typhoons have hit Palau, putting recovering corals and sea life in danger. These events are problematic because of their immediate effects and the ripple effect that will follow. If corals disappear the food web is put at risk, because the fish that feed on the corals will go away. Their predators follow the same destiny, and so on. What does this mean for Palauans who have depended on the ocean for thousands of years? I’m worried that Palauans may have the same destiny as the sea life they depend on.
Beyond the impact on sustenance, these climate change impacts have also affected Palau’s biggest economic driver: tourism. In the future, there may be less sea life to see. Tourists who came to Palau to scuba dive, snorkel, and just soak in the beauty of the place may have nothing to look for anymore. This is a scary thought considering the economy is dependent on a healthy ocean.
In future blogs, I will get out of the ocean for a little bit and spend time analyzing threats to land use, food security, and water quality.
University of Hawai’i, Hilo