A Tale of Two Sanctuaries

Sister Marine Sanctuaries in American Samoa and Palau

By Rachel Plunkett

December 2020

Two islands in the Pacific – American Samoa and Palau – sit nearly 4,000 miles apart, but are united by the rich ocean waters that surround them. In September, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC), which honors this inherent connection and opens the door for international collaboration. Representatives from NOAA and Palau spoke at a virtual event announcing the agreement between the two countries’ marine sanctuaries on December 15th.

Reaching Across Borders

Fagatele Bay is part of National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. It was formed by a collapsed volcanic crater and is surrounded by steep, forested cliffs. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The public announcement of the partnership agreement on December 15 officially recognized Palau National Marine Sanctuary as a sister site to National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, thus introducing a framework for regional collaboration that includes Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i. The agreement will make it easier for ecosystem managers and scientists in the United States Pacific Region and Palau to share knowledge and experience, which will benefit natural resources and wildlife throughout the region, as well as the communities who depend on them.

The virtual event was an opportunity to honor the relationship between the U.S. and Palau and for leaders to share sentiments about the partnership and what it means for the future of conservation throughout the region. Speakers included Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.), assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator; Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., president of Palau; Kristina Kekuewa, regional director, Pacific Islands, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries; Atuatasi-Lelei Peau, superintendent, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa; Yimnang Golbuu, Ph.D., chief executive officer, Palau International Coral Reef Center; Doug Domenech, assistant secretary, Insular and International Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, and John Hennessey-Niland, U.S. Ambassador to Palau.

Grid of webinar participants
On Dec. 15, 2020, representatives from NOAA and Palau held a virtual webinar to celebrate the international partnership between NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the Palau International Coral Reef Center. Photo: NOAA

This agreement will support bold actions to strengthen the conservation, management, and stewardship of Marine Protected Areas across the Pacific Islands Region that intersect with many of NOAA’s critical mission areas, for the benefit of local communities, regional interests, and the nation,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator. “Our Indo-Pacific partnerships are a top agency priority, and this agreement honours our shared history with the Republic of Palau.”

National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa covers six protected areas, including 13,581 square miles of nearshore coral reef and offshore open ocean waters across the Samoan Archipelago. Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, located within the American Samoa sanctuary, hosts the largest population of nesting turtles in American Samoa and offers a refuge for humpback whales, reef sharks, and seabirds. Larger than the state of California, the 193,000 square mile sanctuary in Palau protects 80 percent of the nation’s maritime territory and hosts a thriving coral community. The marine environments around these two large-scale marine sanctuaries are ecologically similar, and resource managers at both locations face many of the same challenges in protecting ocean resources, and the indigenous cultures that depend on them.

“Through our partnership with NOAA and with the sister sanctuary agreement between the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa and the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, we look forward to continuing to lead the way in ocean conservation – through joint ocean discovery, learning and effective MPA management,” said Yimnang Golbuu, CEO of Palau International Coral Reef Center.

Divers may come across cuttlefish during night dives in Palau National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Jesse Cancelmo
blacktip reef shark
The black tip reef shark is a common predator in nearshore waters at National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Photo: Mark Nadon

Sister Sites Foster Collaboration

National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa protects lush coral reefs throughout the Samoan archipelago. There are over 250 coral species in American Samoa. Photo: Wendy Cover/NOAA

Five sites within the National Marine Sanctuary System already have operative sister site status through international agreements similar to this one. These partnerships allow sites to work with their peers in other countries collaboratively on common issues and concerns, while sharing important lessons learned. Sister sites are typically linked by a variety of natural and cultural aspects: like the whales of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary that migrate to the warm waters of the Caribbean to calve and raise their young, or the corals and fish that the Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries share with Cuba.

“We are excited to have Palau join our sister site network,” said John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “By working as sister sanctuaries, resource managers in Hawaii and American Samoa can better collaborate with their counterparts in Palau and we'll be able to learn from each other's experiences in a way that helps improve the marine resources and livelihoods of Samoans and Palauans alike.”

Three people cooking
Fa‘a-Samoa – the foundation of Polynesia’s oldest culture and traditional way things have been done for more than 3,000 years – still prevails in American Samoa. Photo: David Ruck/NOAA

American Samoa has been a territory of the United States since 1900. The United States and Palau have a relationship that dates back to 1947, and since Palau established independence as a sovereign nation in 1994, the relationship between the two nations has remained strong, including cooperation on a number of international issues. In terms of ocean resources, both countries are part of the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS), a regional collaboration to collect real-time data on ocean conditions, forecast future events, and develop user-friendly tools for sharing and accessing information.

American Samoa and Palau both have a history and reputation as leaders in ocean conservation. American Samoa was one of the first in the region to declare its territorial waters to be a sanctuary for whales and turtles, and in 2009, Palau designated its waters as the world’s first national shark sanctuary, later extending these protections to whales, dolphins, and dugongs. All extractive activities such as fishing and mining are now prohibited in Palau National Marine Sanctuary. National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa is the largest national marine sanctuary in the United States’ marine sanctuary system, and its management plan includes various regulations to prevent adverse impacts to the ecosystem.

Addressing Ecosystem Impacts

Manta rays (choklemedaol, Mobula birostris) feed on rich plankton soup in Palau National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala

On these two archipelagos within the regions of Polynesia and Micronesia, entire populations and economies depend on fisheries for survival. Healthy ocean resources are therefore imperative to preserving the way of life on both islands. Coastal and marine resources throughout the Indo-Pacific region are vulnerable to several current and potential climate change effects including, but not limited to, rising sea levels, increasing sea and air temperatures, intensifying storms, changing rainfall patterns, ocean currents, and acidifying oceans. Furthermore, researchers still have much to learn about the mesophotic and deep-sea ecosystems throughout the region. This partnership will allow scientists from both countries to work together to address these challenges, by sharing data, implementing management-driven research programs to inform adaptive resource management, and collaborating on science communication and education efforts.

A pair of anemone clownfish take refuge in the tentacles of a pink anemone in Palau National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Jesse Cancelmo
snorkeler swimming over reef.
The marine environment around Rose Atoll in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa supports a dynamic reef ecosystem, home to a diverse array of species. Photo: Ian Shive/USFWS

“This agreement recognizes our shared commitment to work with our partners to conserve and protect coastal and marine ecosystems, marine resources, and cultural heritage in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Nicole LeBoeuf, Acting Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “It will highlight and strengthen the connections between our communities, which both rely on the ocean we share."

Unaware of international borders, migratory animals in the ocean and sky have served as a tie between faraway communities for centuries. Their unique life histories and long-distance travel means that protecting these species often requires international cooperation. The sister sanctuary status between National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa and Palau National Marine Sanctuary has many potential benefits for migratory species that visit the region. Many seabird, marine mammal, and shark species visit the waters around both island chains, and are important to the ways of life in both locations.

Rachel Plunkett is the writer/editor for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.