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Saturday, May 13, 2000

Palau tries to protect
its marine wonderland

By Susan Kreifels


Palau's Noah Idechong knows all too well how fragile is the beauty of his home islands.

He knows how quickly the unique jellyfish that have evolved in the Rock Islands could disappear. With no stingers, the gentle, famous creatures provide an easy game of catch for careless tourists.

An onslaught of Taiwanese tourists in the 1990s became "a big horror story for us," recalled Idechong, an environmentalist educated in Hawaii. Unaware of the importance and fragility of Palau's marine environment, they trampled on reefs and "took anything that moved."

The Palau Conservation Society undertook a project in 1997 to educate tourists as well as Palauans themselves about the importance of the environment.

"Education is a massive thing and we don't have a long time," said Idechong, who spoke this week at the Mayor's Pacific Islands Environmental Symposium at the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel.

"The challenge is how to short-cut the process."

Fifty delegates from seven Pacific island nations attended the symposium. Idechong, who is featured in Time magazine's current Earth Day 2000 edition, praised the conference, saying it's important for the Pacific region to share a common agenda in preserving marine resources.

People are more interested in "getting by today," he said. "That's why the meeting is so important, to talk about it and really get informed. It takes sacrifice, but it's better to do it now before the islands in the Pacific lose resources."

Part of the symposium was devoted to exporting Hawaii's environmental services and products to the Asia-Pacific region.

Idechong's main concern is the lack of a long-term environmental vision for the islands. It's especially important in the tiny nation of Palau, a world-class dive destination that also attracts international scientists to study its rich marine life.

Palau saw 73,000 tourists in 1997. That year, Taiwanese passed the Japanese as the biggest tourist group. Numbers have dropped to 55,000 since the Asian economic crisis, but are beginning to pick up again.

Palau has limited the areas where tours can go, and is educating tour operators about the environment. The Palau Community College is starting a marine science program this fall.

In the 1980s, overfishing became a problem, and in 1988, Idechong started studying the fish population. His work led to the Marine Protection Act of 1994, when Palau became an independent nation. The government now has many areas where fishing is restricted.

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