Caring for the environment has long been an important part of Palau's culture. For centuries, traditional leaders on these Pacific Ocean islands have worked to protect local waters through enactment of a "bul"—a moratorium on catching key species or fishing on certain reefs to protect habitats that are critical to the community's food security.
When Palau became an independent nation in 1994, its founders wrote in the constitution about the need for "conservation of a beautiful, healthful, and resourceful natural environment."
Palau's waters are worth protecting. Commonly referred to as one of the seven underwater wonders of the world, they boast ecosystems of remarkable biodiversity, which include:
- More than 1,300 species of fish.
- More than 400 species of hard coral and 300 species of soft coral.
- Seven of the world's nine types of giant clam.
- Lakes that are home to nonstinging jellyfish.
- The most plant and animal species in Micronesia.
Today, Palau is again taking a leading role by moving to create a modern-day bul that puts the marine environment first. On Oct. 28, 2015, after unanimous passage in the National Congress, President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, establishing one of the world's largest protected areas of ocean.
The sanctuary will fully protect about 80 percent of the nation's maritime territory, a higher percentage than in any other country. Full protection means that no extractive activities, such as fishing or mining, can take place. The reserve will be the sixth-largest on Earth, covering 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles)—an area bigger than the U.S. state of California.