Pacific nation creates marine reserve the size of California

The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau has announced plans to create one of the world’s largest marine reserves, becoming the latest country to bolster protection of its ocean resources from threats like illegal fishing.

Often cited as an “underwater wonder of the world,” the ocean that surrounds Palau is home to more than 1,300 species of fish and 700 species of coral. Legislation, approved this week by the Palau Congress, designates 80 percent of the nation’s maritime territory as a fully protected. No extractive activities, such as fishing or mining, can take place in the sanctuary that encompasses about 193,000 square miles, or an area slightly larger than California.

Moray Eel

Moray Eel (Moray Eel (Richard Brooks, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

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“Today is a historic day for Palau, proving that a small island nation can have a big impact on the ocean,” President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. said in a statement. “Creating this sanctuary is a bold move that the people of Palau recognize as essential to our survival. We want to lead the way in restoring the health of the ocean for future generations.”

The protections will be ramped up over the next five years in what is Palau’s exclusive economic zone, during which the number of licenses sold to foreign commercial vessels will be decreased annually.

Yellowtail Fusilier

Yellowtail Fusilier ((Credit: Richard Brooks, The Pew Charitable Trusts))

"In its 20-year history as an independent nation, Palau has developed a remarkable conservation legacy, including creation of the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009,” said Joshua S. Reichert, who leads environment initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Palau’s decision is an acknowledgment of the intensely close relationship between the Palauan people and the ocean that surrounds them, a relationship often expressed as ‘Palau is ocean and ocean is Palau.’ ”

Palau joins a growing list of countries that have created massive marine parks covering nearly a million square miles this year, over concerns about the health of the oceans.

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Shark ((Richard Brooks, The Pew Charitable Trusts))

In March, the British government announced its intention to establish the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve covering an area of 322,138-square-miles in the South Pacific. Then in September, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced plans for a fully protected ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs, about 620 miles northeast of his country’s North Island.  A month later at an international ocean conference, Chile announced plans to create a 243,630-square-mile marine reserve around Easter Island.