A Sanctuary for the Silky Sharks, and the Organisms of the Pacific Ocean: Palau’s Distinct Efforts to Quell the Collapse of Marine Fisheries and Biodiversity

By Grace Cajski

Silky sharks patrol the pelagic waters of the Pacific Ocean. They are large, up to ten feet in length, and migratory. They live for nearly two decades and grow slowly, reaching reproductive maturity between seven to nine years old. They hunt tuna—in fact, they make up the majority of sharks that are caught as bycatch in tropical tuna fisheries—and are hunted by humans for their fins. Despite being one of the world’s most abundant shark species, sometimes estimated as the most abundant one, silky sharks are in  steep decline. So, too, are manta rays, sea turtles, the camouflage grouper, hammerhead sharks, numerous species of coral, and bigeye tuna. These creatures all share the waters of the Pacific Ocean, which the international community is increasingly exploiting and degrading.

In the western Pacific Ocean, just north of New Guinea, lies the island nation of Palau. Its surrounding waters are a lagoon: a massive barrier reef system encircles most of the archipelago, creating an area of shallow water between the island and the reef. Its cumulative landmass is less than that of New York City while its coastline is nearly the length of Hawaii’s. Bridges and causeways connect the major islands, but most of the interisland travel is by boat. 

Palau’s history is contentious and riddled with foreign interference. The islands’ first contact with Westerners was in 1783 after the East India Company’s Antelope was shipwrecked. The crew’s stories, and George Keate’s An Account of the Pelew Islands, fueled Western fantasies about the noble savages on this remote island paradise. For the next hundred years, outside contact with the island was minimal, but enough to bestow firearms and disease. 

Then came Catholic missionaries under Spanish and German flags. During the First World War, the Japanese navy expelled the Germans and Spanish from Palau. What followed was a period simultaneously economically prosperous and woefully tragic—as Palau developed, the Palauans became more and more of a minority on their own land. Palauns lost power and autonomy, and many foreigners immigrated. At the conclusion of the Second World War, Palau was declared, essentially, a ward of the United States as a member of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. All the while, Palau’s waters, or more specifically, its resources, were being exploited by its foreign guardians.  

In 1981, Palau was internationally recognized as the Independent Republic of Palau. And so, in its 1994 constitution, the national government accepted responsibility to ensure the “conservation of a beautiful, healthful and resourceful natural environment.”

The Palauan government has upheld its duty. In 2009, the president at the time, Johnson Toribiong, established the world’s first shark sanctuary. This area, larger than France, would prohibit all commercial shark fishing. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, he explained, “the strength and beauty of sharks is a natural barometer for the health of our oceans.” 

“It is anomalous that Palau is experiencing economic difficulty while it sits in the middle of the richest waters in the world,” he said. “But no matter what we do in our own waters, there must be an international solution.” Palau has continually enjoined other countries, the same which just some years ago were governing the island, to match its efforts in ocean conservation. 

Palau continues to be at the forefront of international ocean conservation efforts. In 2015, President Tommy Remengesau established the world’s sixth largest marine protected area. It is 193,000 square miles of maritime territory—eighty percent of the nation’s exclusive economic zone—that is a fully protected marine reserve. Essentially all extractive activities, including commercial fishing and mining, are prohibited. 

Palau’s efforts to conserve were fruitful. Researchers from the University of Hawaii found that, two years after the country established its marine reserve, protected waters had twice the number of fish and five times the number of predatory fish, including silky sharks, compared to unprotected waters. 

Now, Palau is a mecca for divers and marine biologists alike. Increasingly rare species are abundant. Scientists can study its rich biodiversity. Manta rays mate. And, silky sharks swim unmolested.

Grace Cajski is a rising sophomore in Franklin College. You can contact her at grace.cajski@yale.edu.