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New study investigates Palauan conservation policies and food systems

frozen fish
Image: Oleson/Lewis

On October 28th, Palau celebrated the five-year anniversary of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS)being signed into law. After five years of research and planning, including an in-depth report created by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC), the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions (COS), and an expert Working Group, the landmark marine sanctuary entered into force on January 1st of this year. The PNMS fully protects 80 percent of Palau’s waters and is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

study published today in Nature Foodinvestigates how the PNMS closure could impact offshore fish supply chains and nearshore ecosystems. The research, conducted by scientists at COS and the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, with partners in Palau and economists in Italy and the United Kingdom, highlights how food branding provides economic opportunities while helping to avoid unintended consequences of large-scale conservation actions. This study is part of ongoing efforts to investigate how the PNMS can help Palauans conserve biodiversity and ensure food security.

The research team surveyed more than 400 tourists in Palau to understand how conservation policies might impact tourists’ behavior and food preferences. In particular, they explored how food systems respond to conservation policies, yet also create potential win-win solutions benefiting local economies and reef ecosystems.

Their results show that the PNMS policies which restrict industrial offshore fishing could drive up offshore fish prices and, in turn, increase tourists’ consumption of reef fish. However, if tourists are offered a local and sustainable offshore fish choice, this unintended environmental consequences on nearshore reef ecosystems can be avoided.  According to this study, tourists are willing to pay up to $15 more for a local, sustainable offshore fish meal. By offering tourists this choice, their demand for reef fish meals would not increase, avoiding environmental impacts to cultural and ecologically important Palauan reef systems.

"Our study highlights why actions to protect nature need to consider impacts to local food supply and how food branding could curtail these impacts,” explained lead author and COS Early Career Fellow Staci Lewis. “The establishment of a sustainable brand of offshore fish could minimize the [PNMS’s] unintended impacts to reef fish consumption as well as generate economic opportunities for local fishers.”

As other nations look to meet international protected area agreements and conservation goals, studies that analyze socioeconomic trade-offs for food systems will become increasingly important for designing effective and sustainable protected areas as well as  sound conservation policies.

One of the study’s Palauan researchers, Lincy Marino from PICRC, explains how this study is important for Palau, "We Palauans rely on our natural resources, not just for food, but for our culture and traditions. This paper provides important information to our leaders so they can create policies that ensure the PNMS will benefit all of us."

Co-author and the project’s principal investigator Kirsten Oleson, an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, emphasized the importance of connecting food system analyses with policy making. “The [PNMS] sets an international benchmark for protecting our oceans. Our findings support the government by turning potential downsides of fisheries closures into opportunities for the local economy.”


Read the full study >

Read the CTAHR news story >

Read the University of Hawai'i news story >

Read the University of East Anglia news story >

Learn more about our work in Palau >

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