Fishermen In Palau Take On Role of Scientist To Save Their Fishery

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

The island nation of Palau is a legendary tropical coral paradise, with perhaps the most farsighted fisheries management in the Pacific. Palau has protected its reef fishes from the export business that has destroyed fish populations on many reefs for the limitless demand in China. That’s why Palau remains a favorite destination for divers. The fish stay in Palau and the money comes to them.

But divers have to eat. And they like to order fish. So in the last few years, conservationists have been concerned by signs that the fish are declining. But how do you count fish on complex coral reefs? No one’s ever figured out how. Plus monitoring fish populations typically requires years of data collection and a lot of money – something Palau and many other developing nations often lack. So it’s hard to assess the effects of fishing.

Coral reef in Palau.
Photograph by Carl Safina

But now scientists with the Nature Conservancy organization have come up with a clever new way. Instead of counting the number of fish in the water, the idea is to determine the proportion of the population capable of breeding for each fish species. And to use fishermen to collect the data, so it costs very little money! Thescientists teamed up with the fishermen of Palau to try it out. The scientists trained fishermen on how to measure the length of the fish they catch. They also showed them how to cut open the fish’s stomach and inspect their gonads to determine the sex and if it’s sexually mature or an immature juvenile. This information will tell them if enough fish are breeding to repopulate and sustain the fish populations, and if the fish are growing to their adult size.

Between August 2012 and June 2013, trained Palau fishermen were able to collect information on the species, size, and maturity of 2,800 fish!

Baskets of reef fish catches at the Palau market  Photo by Carl Safina.
Baskets of reef fish catches at the Palau market.
Photograph by Carl Safina
catches at the Palau market  Photo by Carl Safina.
Catches at the Palau market.
Photograph by Carl Safina

The data revealed that 60% of the fish they are catching are juveniles, meaning they have not yet had the chance to breed or grow to full size. And for some of the most common caught reef fish, they found that only a very small amount of the population was breeding. The data clearly show Palau’s fish are in decline and risk of collapse.

Because the Palau fishermen were involved in the data collection process, they were able to see and understand first-hand what was happening to their fish. The Palau fishermen realized that with such few fish breeding, that soon there may be no more fish left. They understand that their livelihoods and preserving the Palauan way of life – which revolves around fish – depend on finding a solution to the problem.

So, in communities all across Palau, scientists and fishermen have been holding meetings to discuss the findings of their collaborative research and what to do. Options include setting a minimum size requirement for harvested fish and closing fishing in some areas until the fish can rebound. Because of the fishermen’s commitment to finding a way to sustainably manage their fish populations, there is a great deal of optimism that things will soon turn around for the reef fish in Palau. And once again Palau is setting an example for the world.

Ninety percent of the world’s fisheries are currently considered ‘data poor’, meaning we do not have enough data to adequately assess and manage them. The success of the newly established fisheries research program in Palau provides hope that this could soon change. The scientists with the Nature Conservancy plan to bring this clever fisheries research approach to countries across the globe. And hopefully developing countries around the globe will learn from Palau that there is a way for them to sustain their fisheries!

Further information on this story can be found on the Nature Conservancy website:

Further information on marine conservation efforts in Palau:




Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.