I was sitting in a 16-foot skiff with Governor Thomas Patris of the state of Hatohobei, Palau, anchored over Helen Reef. While the governor talked about a new agreement his community has made with OneReef, a U.S. conservation group, Hatohobei Congressman Wayne Andrew was spear-fishing below us.
“We agree to protect the reef and maintain it,” said Patris, who represents about 200 people in this remote corner of the western Pacific, a little north of the equator and about 1,000 kilometers east of the Philippines. “So that when our children grow up, they will see the same thing that we saw: an abundance of coral, turtles and plants.”
Onereef, based in Santa Cruz, California, has brokered an agreement between North American benefactors and the Hatohobei community to help finance reef protection. The terms are modest: $35,000 a year for 20 years, with the potential to renew. In return, the Palauans agree to establish no-take or catch limits, monitor the reef and keep the community informed and engaged.
Andrew surfaced at my elbow and handed me flesh the size of a life vest from a giant clam. The congressman scrambled into the boat and, using the same enormous knife with which he disembodied the mollusk, sliced the clam into sashimi bites, tossing them in a pan with lemon, soy sauce and taro.
It is easy to see how valuable the reefs are to the Palauans. They fish constantly, using conventional rods, trolling lines, homemade spear guns. During my week on the reef, we feasted on fresh wahoo, Spanish mackerel, jack and more giant clam.
The immediate threat to the reef is overfishing, but not by the Palauans. Boats from Indonesia, the Philippines, China and elsewhere have been harvesting fish illegally for years, with remote sites like Helen Reef an easy target.
“The poaching has gotten more sophisticated,” Andrew said. “China is so far away, I wonder why they are coming here -- China must be overfished. We resist not just to protect our rights but to show the world that we are serious about protecting our resources for our children.”
We anchored off Helen Island, a spit of land barely a kilometer long, uninhabited but for a ranger station and several thousand screaming black noddies and white terns. At first glance I thought the terns flying over the water are bright blue, until I saw they were merely reflecting the azure sea. The island is a vital nesting spot for sea birds and endangered green turtles.
My timing was good. One night on the island a female turtle the size of a manhole cover crawled up the beach to shovel out a hole for her eggs, while a small group of us watched from a distance. She laid dozens of eggs and was gone the next morning.
Conservation officers on Helen Island keep track of the turtles, counting eggs and nursing injured hatchlings until they are strong enough to embark on their own chelonian odysseys.
Onereef’s founder, Chris LaFranchi, was here to check in on the state of the reef. His role has been to connect distant environmental philanthropists with small reef-dependent communities like this one.
“We’re trying to create the structure under which both these parties, which are so different and wouldn’t otherwise know each other, can cooperate to their mutual benefit,” LaFranchi said.
Key to the agreements is the guarantee of long-term support.
“We want to maintain a commitment over the long haul to help these reefs, to get what is needed to adapt to climate change,” he said.
Global warming is in fact the other big threat to the reef. The dynamics are complex, but if rising temperatures elevate sea levels, incite more storms and kill off coral beds, then atolls like Helen Reef are doomed.
It is unlikely that the major polluters -- the U.S., China, India -- will make serious cuts in carbon emissions anytime soon, so addressing climate change on the front lines in places like Palau is a matter of adapting. With an assist from partners halfway around the world, the Palauans are trying. They have no choice.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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