Palau, which lies in the north-west Pacific, east of the Philippines and directly north of Australia, is regarded as one of the world’s best diving destinations, but the government is concerned its popularity is coming at a cost.
A spokesman for President Tommy Remengesau said there was scientific evidence that the chemicals found in most sunscreens are toxic to corals, even in minute doses.
He said Palau’s dive sites typically hosted about four boats an hour packed with tourists, leading to concerns a build-up of chemicals could see the reefs reach tipping point.
“On any given day that equates to gallons of sunscreen going into the ocean in Palau’s famous dive spots and snorkelling places,” he said.
“We’re just looking at what we can do to prevent pollution getting into the environment.”
From 1 January 2020 anyone importing or selling sunscreen containing any of 10 banned chemicals faces a $1,000 fine and tourists who bring banned sunscreen into the country will have it confiscated.
Among the chemicals raising concerns are oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene and some parabens. There are fears these chemicals make coral more susceptible to bleaching and could stunt the growth of baby corals and that sunscreen pollution can affect reefs up to 5km away.
Experts say these chemicals can be found in roughly half of all suncreen brands.
It is believed that the ban will be the first in the world to come into effect. The US state of Hawaii announced a ban on reef toxic sunscreens in May this year, but it does not come into force until 2021, a year after Palau’s.
Palau has long been a pioneer in marine protection, introducing the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, a move that has been widely adopted.
It has also banned commercial fishing from its waters and last year introduced the “Palau Pledge” requiring international visitors to sign a promise stamped into their passport that they will respect the environment.
Craig Downs, executive director at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Hawaii, said other nations would be watching Palau’s move closely.
“It’s the first country to ban these chemicals from tourism. I think it’s great, they’re being proactive,” he said.
“They don’t want to be like Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, where they’ve had to shut down beaches. The coral reefs around those beaches have died.”
Downs called on sunscreen manufacturers to “step up and innovate”, saying the chemicals used for UV protection had been largely unchanged for 50 years.
He said there were some sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that were not reef toxic but added: “The other alternative we’ve been pushing is sunwear – cover up, wear a sunshirt.”
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