Where Past and Present Meet: Marine Conservation in Palau

The belief that nature is something separate from us, that we must protect nature from ourselves, lies at the foundation of many conservation approaches today (Foale and Macintyre 2005). One of the most widely utilized management responses worldwide to declining ocean health has been the implementation of marine protected areas, a strategy that limits access to biologically significant areas of the ocean in an effort to lessen human impact (Agardy 2005). The separation of people from nature contrasts starkly with Palauan culture and tradition. For some Palauan communities, conservation is a way of life, and conservation practices stem from a sense of responsibility to protect available resources for future generations. Palauan history and traditions are passed down orally within families, resulting in a rich array of stories that teach younger generations this conservation ethic (Ueki and Clayton 1999).

However, Palau currently stands on the verge of a new approach toward conservation. As a part of the global economy, the country’s natural resources are increasingly threatened by development, and some Palauans are beginning to incorporate prevailing conservation strategies as a means to address greater human impact (Graham and Idechong 1998). Palau has implemented a national marine protected area network in an effort to slow environmental decline. Through the designation of marine conservation areas by state law, conservation has now taken a more static, written form, rather than the adaptive, traditional approaches that responded to changes in the environment and social needs.

During our second day in Ollei community, we spent the day on the water, snorkeling in the Ebiil Conservation Area just outside the village with protected species such as Napoleon wrasse and humphead parrotfish. After exploring the conservation area, we traveled by boat to another area of the village and caught our dinner using traditional line fishing gear with the help of fishermen from the community. When I asked one fisherman how he had learned to fish, he pointed to his young daughter on the boat with us, who was already learning to fish simply by watching his example. Our day very much embodied conservation in Palau today, where traditions of the past have merged with popular conservation strategies of the present.

The Ebiil Conservation Area has been formally incorporated into the national protected area network through law, but the area is still generally managed under traditional practices such as chief sanctions. However, the flexibility of the system is changing. Despite many similarities between customary and modern conservation approaches, some scholars have noted potential incompatibilities in the intent of these two systems (Cinner and Aswani 2007; Graham and Idechong 1998). The protected area network is still in its beginning stages, and it will be interesting to see the future directions conservation within Palau will take as approaches of the past and present come together.


Agardy, T. 2005. Global marine conservation policy versus site-level implementation: the mismatch of scale and its implications. In Stergiou Konstantinos and Howard I. Browman, “Politics and socio-economics of ecosystem-based management of marine resources,” Marine Ecology Progress Series 300: 241 – 296.

Cinner, J. and S. Aswani. 2007. Integrating customary management into marine conservation. Biological Conservation 140: 201 – 216.

Foale, S. and M. Macintyre. 2005. Green Fantasies: Photographic representations of biodiversity and ecotourism in the Western Pacific. Journal of Political Ecology, 12: 1 – 22.

Graham, T. and N. Idechong. 1998. Reconciling customary and constitutional law: managing marine resources in Palau, Micronesia. Ocean & Coastal Management, 40: 143 – 164.

Ueki, M.F. and S.M. Clayton. 1999. Eco-consciousness in Traditional Palauan Society. Asian Geographer 18(1-2): 47 – 66.