UPDATE: In late November Palau announced that it is designating a 500,000-square-kilometre fully protected marine reserve that would be the world’s sixth largest marine sanctuary. The reserve will protect over a thousand species of fish and some 700 species of coral. Scientists also believe it will help populations of bigeye and yellowfin tuna to recover.
The fish are vanishing. Any fisherman in Palau, an archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean, will tell you that they catch smaller and less fish every time they venture to sea. In Palau, it has traditionally been the men’s role to fish while the women manage land crops. But commercial fishing and poaching has pillaged the ocean of its resources, while amplified tourism and climate change have placed increasing pressure on its marine life.
In the past, a bul – a ban on fishing to protect an ailing reef until it regenerated – would have been ordered by a village chief, ensuring there was always enough food and resources to go around. Globally, around 90 per cent of fish stocks are over-fished or fully fished, so Palau’s president Tommy Remengesau Junior is calling for a bul on fishing before the fish in his country’s waters run out. The proposed national marine sanctuary would turn the 600,000 square kilometres of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) into a marine reserve the size of Ukraine.
For a small nation of around 21,000 people and a land area of 458 square kilometres, Palau punches well above its weight when it comes to conservation. In 2009, Palau led the world by creating the first shark sanctuary, banning all commercial shark fishing in its waters. Since the sanctuary was officially announced, other countries have established shark sanctuaries to try and combat the 100 million sharks slaughtered each year, many for their fins.
The hefty fines for illegal fishing unfortunately do not always deter illegal fishing and in January, a Taiwanese vessel was apprehended with 304 shark carcasses and several hundred shark
fins on board. Five months later four Vietnamese fishing vessels were caught in Palau’s waters with a haul of illegally taken marine-life on board.
During his first two terms as president (from 2001-2009) Remengesau became known for his environmental initiatives such as the Micronesia Challenge, a shared commitment to preserve the natural resources that are crucial to the survival of Pacific traditions and livelihoods, and advocating awareness about global warming.
Early in his third term as president in 2013, Remengesau proposed the national marine sanctuary and if the legislation passes, Palau will become the first country in the world to declare its entire EEZ a Marine Protected Area. Eighty per cent would be a no-take zone, with 20 per cent remaining open for regulated domestic fishing for local fishermen and small-scale commercial fishing.
The sanctuary bill passed its first reading last year and it was assigned to a committee, but at the last minute there was a committee reshuffle. In early August, after months of delays in the Palau Senate, 13 of 16 members of the Palau House of Delegates have introduced the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Legislation. While it needs to go through the committee process and floor passage, with 13 supportive members, sanctuary supporters hope it will pass in the near future.
The Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism, Umiich Sengebau, says the bill became “stuck” in politics and held up by some powerful and influential people with financial interests involved in commercial fishing in Palau.
However, at a community level, he has encountered overwhelming support for the sanctuary. In July, Palau’s fishing fraternity showed support for the banning of commercial fishing at a Fishermen’s Forum, realising the sanctuary will benefit their families’ livelihoods.
A recent survey in Palau highlighted food security and obesity rates as areas of concern. These issues are in part due to many people’s reliance on high-fat, high- sugar canned goods. Renowned for its pristine environment and world-class diving, Palau’s tourism has grown dramatically in recent years, driving the price of fish up. This can mean it is too expensive for locals to buy, while the price of gas has made it expensive for people to go fishing in their boats, Sengebau says.
Grade A and B tuna caught in Palau’s waters is mostly exported to Asia and rejected fish is swiftly bought by hotels for some of the 140,000 plus visitors to Palau every year. “Seeing fresh tuna going out and seeing canned tuna coming in is mindboggling – the best should stay in Palau,” says Sengebau.
Tourism has also greatly impacted Palau’s reef. It has been placed under huge strain from local fishermen trying to keep up with the demand for reef fish from hotels, while also fishing for their families.
Small-scale commercial fishing in the sanctuary’s domestic fishing zone by the country’s two companies would go towards local and tourist consumption, hopefully alleviating pressure on the reef. Sengebau says there have been concerns expressed over the lost revenue from commercial fishing and exports with the sanctuary’s establishment.
“But the potential loss is relatively small – US$600,000 per year. Both companies export most of the fish anyway and only employ 11 Palauans,” he says. MARINE MATTERS 1. Palau is renowned for its world-class diving. 2. Palauan patrol vessel, the PSS President H.I. Remeliik. 3. Ben, a fisherman, supports the sanctuary. 4. Tourism and fishing clash. 5. National Marine Sanctuary campaigners at the Palau night markets in Koror.
Working closely with Remengesau and his team on getting the sanctuary bill over the line is Seth Horstmeyer, director of Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy. He has overseen the sanctuary campaign since 2013, after Remengesau asked for help with sanctuary logistics.
“Only two per cent of the world’s oceans are currently protected by what this sanctuary proposes,” he says. Not only will Palau get a sanctuary that attracts the type of eco-friendly tourists it would like to see, but it will provide average net benefits of $US9 million every year for Palau and provide jobs for its people.
“Opposition to the sanctuary have said Palau would not be able to stay in the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA, which controls the world’s largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery) with the sanctuary,” says Horstmeyer.
“But we have proved we can and other PNA nations have shown their support – and while there may be a drop in earnings, Palau will still earn something from it.” Currently visitors leaving Palau pay a US$50 Green Tax on departure; this will increase to US$100 to supplement the sanctuary.
Palau is looking for help with enforcement and several of its partners have offered to help including Australia, Japan and the United States, the latter a country Palau has a free association with. For the people of Palau, the sanctuary promises so much – jobs and a buoyant economy, a healthy lifestyle, while conserving Palau’s pristine environment. And it means there will still be fish to sustain future generations of Palauans.