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Problems Without Passports: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife–Why Palau?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the previous blog entry my colleague Jim Haw gave the rationale for our work on Guam. After a week on Guam we will make the two-hour flight to Palau. The highest level of species biodiversity occurs in the Indo-West Pacific region, with nearly 2 percent of the world’s reefs distributed throughout Micronesia. Efforts to conserve coral reefs in this region include the integration of management strategies by government and non-governmental agencies alike.

Pictured: Dr. David Ginsburg inventories some of the student dive gear prior to leaving for Guam and Palau at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. Photo by Jim Haw.

For example, on Guam and Palau the Micronesian Challenge was established as a mechanism for protecting at least 30 percent of an island’s near-shore marine resources, as well as a means for developing solutions to prevent their demise. The health of Guam’s reefs has been in decline for several decades. By and large, the observed (and expected) decreases in reef health and ecosystem services are attributed to overfishing, habitat loss, increased development of the tourist industry and the imminent buildup of military activities.

Left: Map of Palau. Courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

The Republic of Palau provides a strong contrast to Guam. Located in the western Caroline Islands, the Palau Archipelago is composed of nearly 586 islands and stretches across nearly 700 km2 of the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Palau has one of the richest sources of marine life in the world in part because of its relatively complex island and reef geography. Although the total land area of these islands is comparable to that of Guam (~500 km2), roughly 9-times fewer people (~20,000 people) live in Palau.

If one were looking for a single metric to describe the difference between Guam and Palau, it might be that the ratio of reef area to human population is far higher on Palau. Palau is a sovereign state in a Compact of Free Association with the Unites States. Palauan citizens are not U.S. citizens, but in many cases they can travel to the U.S. without a visa or passport.

Right: Ginsburg (seated) prepares for a dive in Antarctica.

Many of the same local and global challenges facing Guam (e.g., coral bleaching, illegal fishing, habitat loss, etc.) are becoming growing concerns in Palau. Palauans are becoming increasingly alarmed at the degradation of their coral reef resources on ecological, economic and cultural grounds. Emerging threats include the possibility of oil drilling in the north and continuing tourism development.

Our plans for 2011 include work with the Coral Reef Research Foundation and the Koror Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement, to assist in an ongoing survey and baseline species map of Ngederrak Reef Marine Protected Area. Our team will dive and conduct critical research with local leaders in marine science and environmental ecology.

About the Author: Dr. David Ginsburg is a marine biologist and lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at USC Dornsife. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Guam and has conducted scientific diving in both Guam and Palau for a number of years. His scientific diving experience includes under-ice specimen collection in Antarctica.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This four-week course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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