Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stealing the Future - Commercial Fishing in Palau, Micronesia

Palau has gained much international notariety for taking strong positions when it comes to protecting it's environment and natural resources including setting aside marine and terrestrial conservation areas, outlawing live reef fishing, and banning the taking of sharks or their fins. The President even set an illegal catch of shark fins on fire some years ago in protest against the then lax laws against shark finning.

While there are many great stories to tell about accomplishments made by Palau, there is also a sinister story that somehow gets brushed aside or swept under the rug, and that is the impact of licensing foreign fishing fleets to operate in Palau's waters. It doesn't take much research to find out that fisheries around the world are in grave danger of total collapse. It takes even less research to uncover the unsavory performance records and in many cases illegal activities associated with commercial fishing fleets worldwide. In the case of Palau, the main regional fishing fleets emanate from Japan, China, Philippines and Indonesia.
With fish stocks diminishing, bigger fleets are traveling farther and farther from their native fishing grounds to international waters and in all too many cases to the soveriegn waters of other nations where they plunder the resources of smaller nations helpless to prevent them. Palau is no exception. Whether or not fishing fleets are licensed to fish Palau's waters they invariably seem to show total disregard for contracts, licensing requirements, restrictions, rules, regulations, laws or conservation practices. For all intents and purposes it's a free for all when it comes to what they take and how much they take. Sure, some get caught, but that's just the tip of the iceberg! Violations include transhipping of catches to the Philippines to avoid revenues to Palau with vessels congregating north of Palau to offload more valuable catches to motherships instead of landing them in Palau. They take on of fuel at sea instead of in Palau. Captains lie and cheat on manifests to hide illegal catches and under report catch sizes and values. There are incident of smuggling of tobacco and alcohol.

Another continuing practice, despite Palau's tough laws and at one point tough enforcement that now seems to have been watered down or ceased altogether following the departure of attorney Christopher Hale of the Attorney Generals office, is the issue of shark finning. It was headline news in Palau for quite some time a few years ago but more recently seems to have faded away. At least the attention to this issue has faded but by all reports, the killing of sharks and taking of shark fins is very much alive and strong throughout both legal and illegal fishing fleets operating in Palau. With few exceptions, almost every foreign fishing vessel that was thoroughly searched by Palau law enforcement produced illegal catches including shark fins. It's almost guaranteed to be the same today. But apparently searches seem to be few and far between or simply not thorough enough. Shark fins are being stowed in hidden compartments underneath tuna holds and other areas of the vessels. Fleets are meeting offshore to unload their illegal catches. And all the while, Palau seems to do nothing to shut down illegal fishing in its' waters.

Recently, President Remengesau proposed that Palau pass legislation banning the export of all highly migratory fish from Palau. This could be a start, but there's sure to be a big political fight and even if it were to pass, its' not intended to take effect for several years. By then it won't even matter as the cupboard will already be bare! It's also election year in Palau and as in any election anywhere, there are bound to be powerful and influential financial forces at work.
Despite the damage and destruction they bring, foreign fishing fleets continue to operate in Palau because powerful and influential Palauans ensure they do so and profit accordingly. Palau's international "friendships" with the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan are perhaps another reason that Palau seems to turn a blind eye to the rape and pillage of it's natural resources. As a tiny island nation with limited financial resources, Palau is dependent on foreign aid and assistance from Taiwan, Japan, USA and others in almost every area including government subsidies, capital projects including roads and bridges, power, water and sewer, national health, education, maritime law enforcement, national defense and more. Palau must ask itself if the short term gains to be made by turning a blind eye to impact of foreign fishing fleets are truly worth the long term destruction of Palau's natural resources.

On one hand there is much rhetoric coming from Palauan leaders about the need to be self-sufficient especially in food supply and agriculture and on the other hand Palau let's their neighbors and so called friends steal their most important food source right from under their nose. Why is that? When is enough enough? Which Palauan has the courage and the willpower to tackle this issue? Now is the time for that person or persons to stand up and return fire in the great food war!
IMAGES: Courtesy Christopher Hale; Kevin Davidson

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