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Keeping an eye on an island nation’s marine life

King Center support helped advance Bianca Santos’s research in Palau, where she is studying the impacts of climate change on small-scale fisheries.
Environment and Climate Change

In the Western Pacific island nation of Palau, where nearly 90 percent of households fish commercially or to feed their families, climate change is projected to increase water temperatures by one to three degrees Celsius and reduce the population of certain fish by as much as 75 percent over the next few decades.

bianca santos
Bianca Santos

Which kinds of fish will thrive, which will disappear, and how Palauans will adapt to such dramatic changes in their environment are questions at the heart of research by King Center on Global Development Graduate Student Research Funding recipient Bianca Santos, a PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.   

In October, Santos spent nearly a month on Palau’s Koror and Babeldaob islands where she is studying the impact of climate change on small-scale fisheries. The work is part of her broader dissertation on the spatial management of marine species in a changing climate, including an analysis of policies—and potential policies—that protect large fish and marine mammals when they travel beyond national jurisdictions and exclusive economic zones.

“Palau is at the forefront of marine conservation,” Santos explains, noting that the country already protects more than 80 percent of its national waters. “This research could help inform what type of protections and management initiatives would best support communities in a changing climate.”

Santos is also part of another research project in Palau that is a collaboration among Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions; the Ebiil Society, a Palauan nonprofit that pursues environmental protection through indigenous knowledge; and Abalobi, a South African nonprofit that seeks to use technology to make small-scale fishing more sustainable. The project aims to assess the socioeconomic and decision-making impacts of an app that connects fishers with buyers. Santos has worked on surveys with a small group of fishers for whom the app is being piloted and is preparing for controlled marketplace trials with that group.

coral reef in Palau
Coral reef from the Rock Islands of Palau | Photo credit: Bianca Santos

Focused on impact

larry crowder
Larry Crowder

Stanford University marine ecology professor Larry Crowder recruited Santos to E-IPER after learning about some of her previous work investigating the mortality of sea turtles in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. Crowder assumed the work was PhD related, but Santos came up with and executed the idea—equipping the carcasses of deceased turtles with GPS trackers to try to determine, based on wind and water currents, where and why the turtles were dying—as part of the master’s degree she was earning at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“She struck me as someone who was really talented, smart, and passionate,” Crowder says. “She was interested in solving problems in the real world.”

Santos hadn’t previously considered a PhD; she was working at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the time. But the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

“At NOAA, I felt far from the science and the impact of policies,” she says. “One of my goals in my PhD was to do community-based research to dive into the complexities of marine management at local scales.”

With the help of the King Center on Global Development, that is exactly what Santos is doing.

In Palau, she is using oceanographic modeling to predict how climate change will affect the fish Palauans catch to make their living and feed their families. In partnership with Ebiil, she is also surveying fishermen and women about their views on climate change and how they might adapt to changes in species distribution.

Crowder says his instincts about recruiting Santos to Stanford have more than paid off.

“Bianca was and is outstanding,” he says. “She continues to surprise me with her creativity and her innovativeness and just how she thinks about taking on problems.”

The future of fishing

researchers examining pictures of fish
Reviewing survey questionnaire with collaborators from the Ebiil Society | Photo credit: Bianca Santos

Santos’ project in Palau examines the effects of climate change on three types of species: offshore fish such as tuna and marlin; reef fish such as parrot fish and groupers; and invertebrates such as sea cucumbers and clams. She is still analyzing her data but ultimately plans to model projected climate-driven distributions for those species in Palauan waters through the middle of this century. She expects her research to show that offshore species will be more climate-resilient than reef fish and invertebrates, in part due to their mobile nature and ability to move to favorable environments more easily.

Early insights from her survey indicate that the “vast majority of fishers” are aware of climate change and believe it will negatively impact their fishing in the future. Nevertheless, most people said they would adapt to future conditions in order to continue to work in this field.

In addition to publishing her results, Santos plans to share what she learns with Palauans.

“I don’t want this to be a parachute science situation,” she says. “I hope to center the fishers and our community partner, to give them this information back in a way that’s useable.”

Santos says she wouldn’t have been able to travel to Palau without the King Center’s financial support of her project.

“The King Center-funded work provided a critical opportunity to learn directly from fishers in the field, helping me to better shape my research context and frame my science in the most impactful way,” Santos says. “Effective marine policy should not only lead to environmental benefits, but also improve human livelihoods in an equitable and just manner. I hope to intentionally engage with the local context and center the needs of the people in affected communities throughout all my future work in policy.”

woman standing on beach in Palau
Bianca Santos at a beach in Melekeok, Palau | Photo credit: Kara Birkenmayer