For Palauans, a healthy ocean means a healthy business!

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When you think about paradise, would you describe it as hundreds of unexplored white beaches, miles and miles of endless ocean, crystal clear cyan waters, rock formations that surface from some of the deepest areas of the ocean? If your answer is yes, then the ‘Pristine Paradise of Palau’ is what you are looking for. This small but bountiful country represents a collection of 200 scattered islands located as part of the Micronesian region in the western Pacific Ocean. In the waters of Palau, you can easily spot many different species of sharks, Napoleon wrasse, infinite expanses of coral reefs, manta rays, the list can go on and on. A paradise for divers and snorkelers!

Green Fins beach collage

However, it is not a coincidence that Palau alone has 1300 species of fish and 700 species of corals across its islands. The concept of sustainability is not new for Palauans – surrounded by water their culture has been intrinsically influenced by it. Their food, identity and traditions are based on their relationship with the oceans. Bul is an ancient practice that extends back thousands of years, it involves the Council of Chiefs placing reef areas off limits to fishing during known fish spawning and feeding periods. Over the years this has translated into some of the most effective and well known marine conservation policies.  The Palauan government created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, declaring its entire Exclusive Economic Zone a shark sanctuary that protects about 600,000 sq km (230,000 sq miles) of ocean, an area about the size of France.

Given Palau’s success in environmental protection, their oceans are teeming with life and many people around the World travel long distances to see Palau’s gems. Tourism is one of their main sources of income: “Tourism continues to provide for more than half of our economy, with the industry contributing to 51% or our GDP. Growing our tourism industry responsibly is essential to Palau’s economic vitality”, Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr. President of the Republic of Palau (extracted from the Palau Responsible Tourism Framework 2017-2021).

Green Fins beach collage

Since September 2017, with the aim to conserve their marine ecosystems for future generations, Palau became the 8th active Green Fins country. Koror State Government, the Bureau of Tourism, and Palau Conservation Society, adopted the initiative at a state and national level, and with the help of The Reef-World Foundation, trained a powerful team of Green Fins Assessors. Implementing the Green Fins Code of Conduct wasn’t a big stretch for these partners, as it aligns nicely with the Koror’s ‘Tour Guide Training and Certification Program’. In addition to this, the initiative served as a bridge to unite the public and private sector, “Green Fins provides a real tangible partnership with the (diving and snorkelling) industry”, Lolita Gibbons, Palau Conservation Society and Green Fins Assistant Network Leader.

To be a member, dive centres sign a free and voluntary membership. One of the first dive centres to sign up was Fish’n Fins. After taking over the dive shop in 1998, the owners Tova and Navot Bornovski have achieved so much more than just running a successful dive centre, for them marine conservation goes hand in hand with their business. They feel that through briefings, displaying educational posters and direct interaction with their guests they can have a positive impact by building a deeper understanding of the marine environment.  As part of their advocacy, back in 2002 they founded the Micronesian Shark Foundation an organisation that works in shark conservation, research and education throughout the region. Some of their activities involve shark tagging, awareness raising in schools, collecting DNA from illegally caught sharks, which was a major drive to ban all shark fishing in the area; and publishing of papers and books.

Green fins Tova and Navot found more than just a good location to set up their business in Palau, they found a place that shared their ideologies. When Fish’n’Fins were introduced to Green Fins, becoming a member felt natural because they were already implementing many essential aspects of the Code of Conduct such as implementing an effective trash management policy, the first to use recyclable bento boxes and biodegradable utensils, running clean-ups on a daily basis throughout all of their tours, to just name a few. But Green Fins does so much more than help marine tourism businesses become more sustainable; with government staff involved they are able to get deeper involved with marine tourism activities, help monitor infractions and see the reality of a growing industry. This was added value for people like Tova and Navot who have been tackling local issues for decades

In order to be an active Green Fins member, the dive centre goes through an assessment of their business operations. Assessors use a robust criteria based on the Code of Conduct to monitor what policies the operation has in place to stop environmental damage. At the end of the assessment, Green Fins Assessors consult with the dive centre management and/ or owners highlighting what is working well and with each member, discussing three action points to help them reduce their environmental impact. This process repeats every year with the aim to increase reef resilience by reducing local threats.

Green fins boat scene

One of the points Fish’n’Fins tackled after their assessment was the removal of the shells displayed in their shop. Whilst shell decorations are common practice in tourism destinations, souvenir and dive shops around the world the marine curios industry has a wide-spread impact. The use of marine life to make decorative and household items, jewelry and souvenirs drives a global industry which involves the large-scale collection of a range of animals. Thousands of types of mollusks are used for their shells, together with corals, sponges, starfish, crustaceans, fish and turtles. There are numerous conservation issues associated with this industry, including over-exploitation and direct habitat damage through irresponsible collection methods.

Tova decided to take this as an opportunity to raise awareness and share knowledge with her staff. She decided to make it an ‘event’ by having as many of the staff involved and taking a boat specifically to return the shells to the ocean. Even though at first some of the staff thought it was silly, she felt that by the end everyone left with a deeper and better understanding of how each small action that we take can have a bigger impact. This exemplifies how adopting the Green Fins Code of Conduct can help even some of the best and more environmentally aware business practices take steps to be even better.

By working together and following the Green Fins guidelines, the diving and snorkelling industry will contribute to Palau’s efforts to conserve their natural resources. They are now part of the more than 500 members across South East Asia, the Indian Ocean and now the Pacific! This is just the beginning of Green Fins in Palau and we at The Reef-World Foundation are sure that it will be another success story.

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