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Views from Palau: Keeping score on Palau’s environment

Koror—Half a lifetime ago I graduated from the University of Plymouth with a degree in Environmental Science, more specifically, Aquatic Pollution Ecology. It taught me the methods of assessing an ecosystem and determine how healthy it is by what is living there and the chemicals present. We studied everything from pristine rivers (high score) to those affected by agriculture or acidification (7-8), those that passed through industrial areas (3-5) and those that had been affected to the point where they were all but dead (0-1).

I spent a good number of hours wearing chest waders in surprisingly cold water atop moorland in the wilds of England, gathering biological samples and flow rate data. Ah, fond memories!

The key word here is biodiversity, the number of different species living in that system. High biodiversity, high score. At the same time we learned about philosophy and politics, tourism, resource use and how to analyze it all into a cohesive understandable thesis or paper that can be used to ultimately educate others and even make the world a better place. We stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us and that’s OK.

A few years ago, I started to film in some of the rivers that drain the large island of Babeldaob in Palau. And even with just a camera and a few days of observations I could see just how healthy they were. Large numbers of a variety of crustaceans live alongside large freshwater eels (watch out, they like to nibble). Various true fish species vie for space and food in well oxygenated fast moving flows. It made for some stunning visuals and it was a joy to see a healthy system with so many surprises.

Your ears are filled not only by the roar and gurgle of the water but with the sounds of the surrounding jungle too. Birds and insects call each other with their own indecipherable messages and indicate the species richness here. Endemic birds found nowhere else boom and chirp hidden in the thick vegetation or give you fleeting glimpses as they fly through the undergrowth.

Take a drift down stream on a rubber ring through the mangroves or better yet join the jungle river cruise for some crocodile encounters. It’s here where some more magic happens as the mangrove root systems are home to a huge number of juvenile fish species, each sheltered and in a nursery type environment, out of the reach of most larger predators.

The Protected Areas Network or PAN for short has designated numerous river and mangrove systems which each contribute to the web of secure environments.

So when we have a healthy system, we see a variety of organisms— humans in this case, using it to live, find food or even for recreation. There’s hiking, birdwatching, kayaking, fishing, swimming etc. It is then an unpleasant surprise that with all this official work to protect these environments, their waters, inhabitants and dependants, when we reach the sea and its public swimming beaches, we find a “Raw Sewerage” sign hanging in plain sight for all to see.

This recent addition to Palau’s coastal trees is surprisingly not at the top of many visiting wildlife watchers lists, nor is it a family favorite when looking for a refreshing dip on a hot day; it’s a necessary public health warning, because there is in fact raw sewerage being discharged into the local waters.

So what happens when someone is caught destroying the environment, polluting the rivers or killing the wildlife? Yes, they are fined and rightly so. What happens when the utility company accidentally or deliberately discharges raw sewerage? They are fined and rightly so. Who pays that fine? That fine is paid by the government with taxpayer money.

Enjoy your swim in the Pristine Paradise everyone. The number of humans using polluted systems? Only tourists who can’t see or read the warning signs.

About the author: Richard Brooks owns Lightning Strike Production, which covers everything from underwater to aerials. See his work at

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