The Pacific Is About to Get a Massive New Ocean Reserve

The nation of Palau in the western Pacific just protected 80 percent of their ocean.

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Palau's Rock Islands peek above the country's deep blue ocean.

A tiny island country in the western Pacific Ocean that's smaller than New York City has approved the creation of an enormous marine reserve that's bigger than the U.S. state of California.

The nation of Palau is moving forward with creating a reserve that's about 193,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) in size. This would make it one of the five largest fully protected marine areas in the world. (Read about Chile's newest marine reserve.)

On Thursday Palau's Congress signed off on keeping 80 percent of its territorial waters from any extractive activities, including fishing and mining. The remaining 20 percent will remain open to fishing by locals and a limited number of small commercial operations.

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President Tommy Remengesau Jr. plans to lend his signature to the new reserve as soon as next Monday, which will make the protected area official.

"Island communities have been among the hardest hit by the threats facing the ocean," Remengesau said in a statement. "Creating this sanctuary is a bold move that the people of Palau recognize as essential to our survival."

Enric Sala, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence and head of the Pristine Seas project, said that "Palau has really blown it out of the water."

The country "is one of the places with the highest marine biodiversity on the planet," he says. Pristine Seas helped evaluate the effectiveness of smaller, traditional marine reserves in Palau.

The country's waters are home to over 1,300 species of fish, about 700 species of hard and soft corals, and marine lakes that host hordes of non-stinging jellyfish.

Palauans have a long history of bul, or setting aside smaller reef areas during fish spawning and feeding periods as a way of giving those populations time to recover from fishing practices. The federal government has now effectively extended that practice to encompass the majority of the country's ocean.

Experience the the stunning biodiversity of the Republic of Palau's waters with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas.

The government is still working out the details when it comes to enforcement of their new marine reserve. The nation has no military and only one law enforcement ship.

But "Palau is serious about enforcing their laws and protecting their resources," says Sala. Earlier this year, the country confiscated wooden boats from Vietnam that were fishing in Palau's waters illegally and burned them. (Learn more about the incident.)

"We will not tolerate any more unsustainable acts," Palau president Remengesau told National Geographic earlier this year. "Palau guarantees, [poachers] will return with nothing."

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