To save the picturesque South Pacific coral reefs often dubbed the Underwater Serengeti, the tiny island nation of Palau has passed legislation to ban all forms of sunscreen deemed toxic to marine life by 2020. In doing so, Palau becomes the first nation in the world to undertake such a prohibitive measure.
The new laws include confiscating from tourists sunscreens on the banned list once they bring them into the country, as well as fining vendors up to $1,000 for selling those products. Those items on the reef-toxic list comprise sunscreen that includes oxybenzone or any of nine other chemicals declared harmful to life on the corals offshore. Another stipulation includes replacing disposable cups, straws, and various food containers with reusable equivalents.
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Palau President, Tommy Remengesau, declared that the government was compelled to pass the legislation in the wake of a 2017 report revealing evidence of harmful sunscreen ingredients in the country's Jellyfish Lake tourist attraction, that was shut down for at least a year when jellyfish populations were reported to be dropping.
“We must meet our duty, at every opportunity, to educate international visitors about how Palau has lasted in this uniquely untouched natural state for so long,” said Remengesau.
Hawaii has had a similar law in place since July, although the state does allow for banned sunscreens requiring a doctor's prescription. However, bans on other toxic sunscreens remain in effect, especially those containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which have been traced to the phenomenon of coral bleaching, which causes decolorization of the reefs before they die off.
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The government of Australia has yet to follow suit on banning sunscreen, given its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef just north of the island continent. Although the reef has been designated as a protected area as well as a World Heritage Site, those measures haven't helped reverse the damage on one of Australia's greatest tourist attractions. Research has revealed that almost a third of the reef is already dead, while half of the remaining corals still alive are already starting to die.
Coral reefs might be pretty to look at, but marine biologists regularly underscore their benefits to the aquatic ecosystem. They not only shelter fish from predators, but contain a wide variety of food and nutrients for more than 1,500 species of underwater animals.