Exploring western science’s role in the management of Palau’s marine resources

“Imagine a guy like me instructing a student of a university,” fisherman Saiky Shiro exclaimed after he explained the unique community-based fisheries monitoring program in the Ngarchelong state of Palau during our stay in the village of Ollei. Ironically, every topic this university student had been exposed to up to this point, whether it was how to approach sustainable development in Palau or maintain local knowledge and traditions, was both literally and figuratively foreign to me and I realized I had much to learn from this local fisherman.

This morning, however, I felt as if I had landed on firmer ground when our class spoke to Pat Colin of the Coral Reef Research Foundation. Given my background in biology, I was comfortable with how Pat presented the history of research on spawning aggregations of reef fish. He explained that understanding spawning aggregations is necessary for the sustainable management of the species. Although both the Ollei fishermen and Pat Colin were talking about the same thing, they did so in different ways. While Pat explained how research conducting transects using GPS receivers has helped confirm the presence of spawning aggregations, the fishermen explained their daily observations on the water have allowed them to understand many reef fish species spawn according to the lunar cycle.

Reflecting on Pat’s lecture, I realized his research not only provided critical information to manage Palau’s reef fish populations, but in a broader sense introduced questions for me about how best to incorporate western scientific knowledge into management decisions in Palau. Tino Kloulechad, another fishermen from Ollei, was firm in his conviction that he understood the spawning aggregations of reef fish in his community based on continual observation of the fish populations. However, Tino is also involved in a fisheries monitoring program started by the Ebiil Conservation Society which has collected catch data from all the fishermen in Ollei for the past year. The fishermen’s involvement in this data collection program demonstrates openness at the community level for more scientific forms of management. Time will tell how the traditional knowledge that has dictated marine conservation in Palau for centuries will interact with western scientific research conducted in partnership with government agencies and NGOs.

Additionally, given the government’s interest in incorporating scientific studies into local management practices, this is a timely and relevant question. For example, Pat explained how minor adjustments to collection of transect data on spawning aggregations led one study group to conclude an important species of grouper had disappeared when another showed they were still abundant in the reef. Although I was expecting a lecture on the basic scientific understanding of reef fish in Palau, I instead came to understand the context in which seemingly straightforward science is implemented matters immensely.

The talk presented by King Sam and Ilebrang Olkeriil of the Koror State Government’s Conservation and Law Enforcement Division helped cement the point that the context in which an issue is analyzed is extremely important. For example, we learned in the case of dugong management national law structures state involvement in the species’ conservation, including conducting necropsies on dugongs when national government employees are unavailable. Ilebrang explained to our class though the physical distance between the national and state government is small (Palau’s land area is 191 square miles in total), challenges exist in coordinating state and national governments.

While the first portion of the class explored traditional knowledge and what it means for marine conservation management in Palau, today began the exploration of western science implementation and state government management plans. Although both these concepts are ones I’ve been previously exposed to, the discussions today made me realize just how important the context of local tradition and knowledge can be in influencing management of marine resources around the world.

Pat Colin illustrating the process of reef fish spawning aggregations
Ilebrang Olkeriil explaining how her family’s dedication to conservation has inspired her work