Hatohobei Conservation at Helen Reef: Benefiting People and Wildlife

“This was a remarkable trip,” exclaimed Wayne Andrew, the manager of the Helen Reef Resource Management Project (HRRMP) with a big grin. “It was the first time a group like this has gotten together to survey Helen Reef.”

The success of the recent Helen Reef monitoring trip was due not just to the information gathered by the snorkeling and SCUBA surveying teams, but more importantly, the two-week trip involved the collaboration of many different Palauan conservation organizations. The experience strengthened the bonds between the partner agencies and Sonsorol and Hatohobei State, encouraging more volunteerism and stewardship in resource management.

Hatohobei State's HRRMP coordinated the fish, invertebrate, and coral surveys, building upon previously established annual monitoring baselines.  A team of 25 participants from different states, Palau Conservation Society (PCS), and Palau International Coral Reef Research Center (PICRC) traveled together to the Southwest Islands on the state boat, the Atoll Way.  The team collected data essential to making informed decisions about how the reef can be managed without degrading its current extraordinary abundance. 

Fat, large, fearless fish flourish in Helen Reef, a diver's and fisherman's dream.  Roving herds of more than 50 bumphead parrotfish cruise the reefs where scores of turtles swim, sleep, and forage.  A short spit of shifting soft sands and guano speckled shrubs called Helen Island is home to three Helen Reef Conservation Officers, dozens of nesting green turtles, and thousands of incessantly squawking sea birds.  Amidst the myriad corals and plentiful giant clams with neon lips, the spectacularly vibrant reef fish, including wrasse, unicornfish, and parrotfish, grow to sizes rarely seen or caught near Palau’s main islands. 

Helen Reef, over 700 km southwest of Koror, has been a traditional fishing ground for Tobians for hundreds of years.  During the past 40 years, Tobians have become concerned by the loss of valuable marine resources due to foreign fishing fleets poaching Helen Reef and local over-harvesting.  The community of Hatohobei created the HRRMP to address these issues with the support of Mike Guilbeaux and his organization, the Community Conservation Network.  Now, a local management board oversees how the reef is used and has proposed zones for fishing and no fishing as a tool to sustainably manage the area.  No fishing is allowed in approximately 33 percent of this remote reef.  A series of regulations created by HRRMP and enforced by the Hatohobei State Conservation Officers in cooperation with Palau’s Ministry of Justice, prevent the over-exploitation of fish, giant clams, trochus, and turtles within this unique biodiverse reef.

Just as President Remengesau says, "the environment is our economy, the economy is our environment," Palau's Southwest Islanders continue to tackle hard questions regarding how to maintain the best of their traditions, and restore as well as protect their islands and reefs, while trying to improve their standard of living and quality of life.  Given the shrinking number of people and profusion of wild food available on their nearly wild islands—thick with coconut and land crabs, fringed with reefs full of fish and clams—the Southwest Islanders live a predominantly subsistence based lifestyle. 

For better or worse, the powerful tidal wave of the cash economy has swept most Tobians and Sonsorolese to Koror in the last 30 years.  Humans, one of the most endangered species in the Southwest Islands, struggle to maintain their communities on Hatohobei, Sonsorol, and Pulo Ana due to the lure of opportunities in Koror where they can earn money and have access to better health care and education.  However, when asked, Tobians and Sonsorolese say they belong on these far-flung islands.  This belonging is evident in the silent sadness felt by the Southwest Islanders upon leaving Hatohobei, Sonsorol, and Pulo Ana as the Atoll Way returned to Koror, a place they never intended to live permanently.

Over the course of six days at Helen Reef, the monitoring team counted fish during over 12 hours of timed swims, conducted over 140 transects at depths of 10 and 5 meters, surveyed 40 transects for trochus, and walked the beaches at night to monitor for nesting turtles.  PCS completed a feasibility study for rat eradication on Fana Island as well as a chicken census on all of the Southwest Islands.  The PCS Marine Team helped with the Helen Reef fish, invertebrate, and substrate surveys.  PICRC completed several dive surveys, filming their transects to compare with surveys conducted in 2000 by visiting scientists. The team grew to know each other and the islands better, savoring the natural wealth of Helen Island, the shimmering orange moonrises, the ease of fishing in such abundance, and the friendships based on talking stories and shared experiences.

The trip embodied mengesiau, a traditional Palauan word for cooperative effort among different groups that involves working, sharing, and eating together. This highly collaborative monitoring trip involving numerous organizations enhanced the Tobians' sense of identity and self-confidence.  The HRRMP faces significant challenges for continuing reef monitoring for the long-term given the considerable expenses associated with traveling to such a remote location.  However, HRRMP is addressing this and other issues. With their community-based management and monitoring program, HRRMP serves in many ways as a successful model for not just other Palauan states that are beginning to develop site-based management plans, but also for marine conservation and management programs throughout the Micronesian region.

At the end of the trip, all of the participants returned to Koror, proud of accomplishing their goals and objectives, and confident that Helen Reef can be effectively locally managed and monitored to the benefit of both the local people and wildlife.

The Helen Reef Resource Management Program, Palau Conservation Society, and Palau International Coral Reef Center thank all of the participants, particularly the volunteers, and appreciate the support from the states of Sonsorol and Hatohobei.