Highlights from Our Ocean Palau 2022

Welcome sign at Our Ocean with many plants in front and made of wood. Has welcome greeting Alii on the background of sign.
Palau greeted Our Ocean attendees with a warm welcome after a two year wait. (Jesse Alpert/U.S. Department of State)

USGS Science Coordinator Heather Kerkering represented PI-CASC on the global stage, as part of the Department of the Interior’s delegation to the Our Ocean 2022 Conference in the Republic of Palau. The conference took place April 13 and 14. This conference’s theme was “Our Ocean, Our People, Our Prosperity” and was inspired by Palau’s rich ocean-centered society and culture. The seventh Our Ocean conference was the first to be held in a small island developing state, which amplified the importance of healthy oceans to our Pacific Islands and other ocean-sustaining communities.

Kerkering participated in discussions that build upon and expand opportunities across climate needs, climate adaptation strategies, and ocean-climate commitments from around the globe, with an emphasis on our Pacific region. Through this, she is helping to solidify relationships that will enable PI-CASC to work with both established and new project partners and points of contact within US and territorial governments to apply USGS work across the Pacific, enhancing our shared climate resilience. Read about her conference and Palau experience highlights below.

Leading up to the Event

Attending a high-level event like Our Ocean is no easy feat. Kerkering began the request to attend back in 2020 and successfully navigated many federal travel and security requirements to be approved to attend. Once approved, the Our Ocean conference also required a long checklist of preparation work and health examinations to ensure appropriate clearance to events and prevention of COVID spread. Through this process, Kerkering was able to get involved with the U.S. Department of State and Department of Interior delegation planning. This allowed her to see how a conference like this develops and the many hands needed to make ensure success.

Kerkering’s federal USGS position through PI CASC allowed her a seat within Department of Interior (DOI) delegation alongside other remarkable representatives including Deputy Assistant Secretary Keone J. Nakoa with the Office of Insular and International Affairs, Senior Advisor for Native Hawaiian Affairs Summer Sylva, and Martin Moore with the Department of the Interior (in photo below). Kerkering worked with the delegation to develop Our Ocean Marine Protected Areas discussion sessions and Ocean and Climate Crisis talks. The DOI Delegation also worked together to help schedule travel and side events. The experience provided Kerkering an insider view of what it is like to interact at the government official level.

In the DOI delegation pic from left to right: Martin Moore (Deputy Assistant Secretary Support Staff), Heather Kerkering (USGS PI CASC Science Coordinator), Keone Nakoa (Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs), Summer Sylva (Senior Advisor for Native Hawaiian Affairs)
In the DOI delegation pic from left to right: Martin Moore (Deputy Assistant Secretary Support Staff), Heather Kerkering (USGS PI CASC Science Coordinator), Keone Nakoa (Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs), Summer Sylva (Senior Advisor for Native Hawaiian Affairs). (PC: H.Kerkering)

A key highlight and benefit of Kerkering’s delegation participation was access to and engagement with other DOI representatives. Preparing for and attending Our Ocean alongside the delegation provided a premier opportunity to showcase USGS climate work to colleagues representing different departments and levels within DOI. The result was the creation of enduring partnerships and an ongoing dialogue on climate adaptation efforts and opportunities in the Pacific.

In addition to that prep work, Kerkering worked with PI CASC and National CASC staff to develop valuable communications products that she could utilize while networking. This included a new USGS CASC Pacific Island Partnerships webpage and associated business cards (see below). The webpage houses key PI CASC resources (e.g., science, news, multimedia, and contacts) related to the management and sustainability of our ocean and other potentially relevant PI CASC efforts that address the conference action areas. PI CASC worked with the National CASC to compile relevant PI CASC research and programming under three main priorities: (1) Supporting Ridge-to-Reef Management, (2) Empowering Communities, and (3) Protecting Vulnerable Ecosystems.  Once published, the webpage was linked to a business card through a QR code. This allowed Kerkering to be able to share a curated database of all things PI CASC and oceans to any one she crossed paths with at the conference.

Photo of business card with QR code and reef picture alongside photo of homepage of USGS CASC Oceans page with pacific islands background picture on top.
On the left is the produced PI CASC business card with a QR code on the back that links to the Pacific Islands Partnerships website co-developed by PI CASC and the National CASC. (PC: H.Kerkering)
PICASC Staff Heather Kerkering photographed in front of Our Ocean Palau 2022 sign.
Heather Kerkering makes it to Palau and excited for all the ocean, climate, and resiliency discussions ahead! (PC: H. Kerkering)

Alii and Welcome to Palau

After just attending the 2022 University of Guam Conference on Island Sustainability , Kerkering jetted off to Koror, Palau for the Our Ocean conference. She arrived during some stormy weather and yet remained appreciative of the island’s beauty and warm welcome (see pictures from her arrival in the image gallery below). She arrived with over 150 US Government delegates and became quickly immersed in logistics, events, policy, and security discussions.

There is a gallery of photos from Kerkering’s Palau excursion at the bottom of this story. Please check out all of the other photos from her trip there.

Photo with Palau Community College sign and welcome to all Our Ocean delegates message.
Our Ocean conference attendees were met with welcoming signs at many establishments across Koror, Palau as the event elevated the islands to the global stage. (PC: H.Kerkering)

New Commitment Made at 2022 Our Ocean

Community gathered on benches under tent next to Ngardok Lake Reserve Visitor Center, where they are serving food.
Community members gathered to witness the signing at the Ngardok Lake Reserve Visitor Center. (PC: H. Kerkering)

USGS PI CASC Science Coordinator Heather Kerkering attended the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and Palau Ministry of Finance at the Ngardok Lake Reserve. This MOU solidifies their intent to pursue protected area planning, training, and collaboration in sustainable visitor use and tourism management of sites within the Republic of Palau’s protected areas network. Deputy Assistant Secretary Keone Nakoa (in photo below) signed the MOU on behalf of the Department of Interior.

This MOU demonstrates a joint commitment to continued responsible resource management in Palau. In 2015, Palau fully protected 80% of its Exclusive Economic Zone from commercial fishing by establishing the National Marine Sanctuary. Palau is no stranger to making strong environmental protection commitments, as seen in their requirement for all visitors to sign the community developed “Palau Pledge.” Through this new MOU, the NPS will support Palau’s efforts by providing technical assistance that builds on already developed institutional capacities to advance Palau’s initiative to develop a sustainable visitor use and tourism plan for its public lands.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Keone Nakoa (in first photo) signed the MOU on behalf of the Department of Interior and shaking hands with other signees from NPS, and the Palau Ministry of Finance.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keone Nakoa shaking hands with other MOU signees on behalf of the Department of the Interior. (PC: H. Kerkering)

Our Ocean Conference Key Messages

Tina Stege presenting on Our Ocean mainstage with panel on stage at first plenary.
Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands Tina Stege presenting at the “Confronting the Ocean-Climate Crisis” Plenary. (PC: H. Kerkering)

Kerkering  was able to attend many different open and closed sessions across the action packed two-day conference and side events.  The first plenary included Tina Stege (in photo below), Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands, who represented the Republic of the Marshall Islands and lead the Ocean-Climate Panel. Tina along with many other conference speakers such as John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (in photo below), continually emphasized the importance of the climate adaptation work that PICASC and our partners across the region are doing on behalf of our communities, cultural heritage, and shared natural resources.

Kerkering shared the following key messages from her Our Ocean 2022 conference experience:

  • Climate change is here. Now is the time and this year needs to be about implementation.
  • The ocean connects our lives, economies, our cultures.
  • Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Palau are facing severe and urgent threats to ocean livelihoods and coastal ecosystems
  • Ocean and coastal communities bear the brunt of climate change.
  • More collaboration is needed across Pacific regional political partnerships.
  • More global and national action can better support local impact.
  • Adaptation and planning needs to be inclusive of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), industry innovation, and various science disciplines.

John Kerry presenting on main stage at Our Ocean.
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on the Our Ocean Mainstage. (PC: H. Kerkering)

Panel taking a group shot with 13 different members.
High-level panel after discussing sustainable ocean management. (PC: H. Kerkering)

Kerkering took part in a wide array of sessions throughout the conference. Some of the topics included illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, Micronesia Challenge updates, artificial intelligence innovation, and other topics related to the Our Ocean areas of action. One of Kerkering’s session highlights included attending a high-level panel for 100% sustainable ocean management. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Republic of Palau President Surangel Whipps both participated in the experienced panel (see photo below). Through these discussions, Kerkering learned about the various ways governments, organizations, and local communities are adapting for shifting ocean conditions.

Another conference highlight included Kerkering’s experience with the Our Ocean Youth Delegation, which provided conference support to bold young leaders (aged 18-30) who are making a positive impact in at least one of the action areas. Kerkering was able to introduce herself to the cohort of young leaders from the US, Malaysia, Thailand, Palau, and more. Kerkering was inspired by the passion of the youth delegation, who acted as collaborators to international commitments and contributed unique experiences to the six conference areas of action.

Youth Delegation gathering event with everyone sitting at tables.
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry asking USGS PI CASC Science Coordinator Heather Kerkering to introduce herself at the Our Ocean Youth Delegation gathering. (PC: H. Kerkering)

Making Relationships with People and Place

Seven participants on boat on the ocean with green islands in the background.
Our Ocean Palau participants on a boat excursion to the Rock Islands. (PC: H. Kerkering)

USGS PI CASC Science Coordinator Heather Kerkering not only made the most of her conference time, but also made it a point to meet with other partners and representatives while in Palau. Kerkering was able to travel to the Rock Islands by boat with other Our Ocean participants, including partners at the Palau International Coral Reef Center. She also got a chance to meet and travel around Palau with partners from the East-West Center, the Pacific Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change Management Network, DOI/USGS and many more. Please check out the gallery at the end of the story to see more photos from Kerkering’s experiences.

Through these experiences and meetings, Kerkering learned about the different issues and needs of Palau including:

  • Socio-economic issues:
    • Unique island politics and the many players focusing on Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS)
    • Dependency on tourism and need for fair living wages
    • Access to near- and off-shore fisheries
    • Need to maintain local sustainable practices
  • DAS Nakoa in passenger seat and Martin Moore driving car on road between two bays.
    Kerkering traveled with Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Keone Nakoa and Office of Insular Affairs Honolulu Field Office Team Member Martin Moore around Palau. Moore is from the Republic of Palau and gave the DOI Delegation a insider tour of the island. (PC: H. Kerkering)

    Climate adaptation priorities:

    • Sea-level and coastal erosion
    • Impacts of drought on agriculture and freshwater availability
    • Invasive species like the coconut rhinoceros beetle (CRB)
    • Coral bleaching and health
    • Sustainability and climate change impacts to fisheries
    • Land-based erosion into coastal and nearshore environments
    • Increased storm frequency and intensity
    • Interest in nature-based solutions to these challenges

Kerkering plans to apply these key takeaways in her work with the USGS and DOI to enhance PI CASC engagement, collaboration, and research efforts. After meeting with USGS employees in Palau, Kerkering noted their interest in supporting local Palau citizens by continuing to invest and support community capacity building to adapt to climate change,  participating in relevant meetings and events within the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands, and further participation in Pacific-wide organizations and other federal agencies.

Pacific Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change Management Network member Jacques Idechong pointing to map of Ngiwal State Conservation Area.
Pacific Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change Management Network member Jacques Idechong showed Kerkering around the island as well, while discussing various local invasive species issues. (PC: H. Kerkering)

About Our Ocean Palau

The seventh Our Ocean conference gathered people from over 75 countries and over 100 non-government organizations and private sector groups to make attainable commitments and strategize around actions for ocean protection. The conference was originally scheduled for 2020 and continued to be pushed until April 2022 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Regardless, delegates from around the world showed up to make commitments around 6 priority areas of action:

  1. Advancing Marine Protected Areas for Communities, Ecosystems, and Climate: 58 commitments worth $1.3 billion
  2. Tackling Marine Pollution: 71 commitments worth $3.3 billion
  3. Confronting the Ocean-Climate Crisis or Towards an Ocean Solution for Climate Change: 89 commitments worth $4.9 billion
  4. Creating Sustainable Blue Economies: 89 commitments worth $5.7 billion
  5. Advancing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries and Aquaculture: 60 commitments worth $668 million
  6. Achieving a Safe, Just, and Secure Ocean: 42 commitment worth $358 million

The conference was started by Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in 2014 and has since provided the stage for more than 1800 commitments to be made worth about $108 billion.  Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry alongside Palau President Surangel Whipps, Jr. co-hosted this year’s conference, which included a U.S. interagency delegation and U.S. representatives from civil society and industry.

View all of this year’s commitments here:

A livestream of the conference can be viewed on the Our Ocean website.