…could set precedent for tuna industry
The Pacific nation wants to conserve fish for its economy and marine reserves. How will this impact the fishing industry?
The Pacific island-nation of Palau is close to kicking all commercial fishing vessels out of its tropical waters. The move will single-handedly section off more than 230,000 sq miles of ocean, an area slightly smaller than France, to create one of the world’s largest marine reserves. The sanctuary, which Palauan President Thomas Remengesau Jr announced at the United Nations last month, would also sit inside the world’s last healthy stand of lucrative, tasty tuna.
Giving fishing vessels the boot is bold for any nation, but perhaps more so for Palau, a smattering of 300 islands east of the Philippines. Tuna, America’s favorite finned fish, is a regional boon worth an estimated $5.5bn. Commercial fishing, largely by boats from Japan and Taiwan, represents $5m annually – or 3.3% of GDP – to Palau. But still, the island state says it will allow existing fishing licenses to expire.
The move, hailed by ocean conservationists, sets a worrying precedent for the tuna industry. While the commercial catch inside Palau is minimal, captains covet the freedom to chase warm-blooded, migratory tuna across jurisdictions. If Palau goes through with the plan, it will mark the first time a nation has completely banned fishing vessels from its entire Exclusive Economic Zone.
“Our concern is not so much a practical one as it is a concern with the precedent of closing areas with no scientific basis for it,” says Brian Hallman, executive director of the American Tunaboat Association.
“The migratory range of tunas is vast, covering the waters of many countries and the high seas. So the only way to conserve stocks is by international treaty arrangements and this is already being done.”
Palau’s decision to act alone could be seen as a warning to the fishing industry to take the sustainability concerns of smaller, fish-rich nations more seriously and to work with these countries on more nimble and responsive solutions.
A domino effect?
Palau currently works with seven of its island neighbors to co-operatively manage a large swath of ocean. Jointly, these eight nations set fishing quotas and sustainability standards to manage nearly a third of the world’s tuna stock. Balancing both conservation and business, the alliance became the first group of countries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council for managing its tuna grounds sustainably.
But this arrangement hinges on allowing more-sustainable fishing inside member waters. If Palau bans commercial fishing, it’s unclear how this will impact the broader regional effort.
“There’s nothing in these agreements that require we allow fishing in our waters,” Remengesau says in a telephone interview. “It’s all about the regional area. Our conservation efforts would ensure that the stocks are healthy and that they gain in economic value as they move out of our territorial waters into other waters.”
When it comes down to it though, banning commercial boats simply appears to be in Palau’s interests.
Even though the bulk of commercial fishing in the region focuses on tuna, sharks are frequently hauled in as bycatch. Yanking sharks out of the sea directly hits Palau’s biggest moneymaker: the $85m dive tourism industry.
“We feel that a live tuna or shark is worth a thousand times more than a dead fish,” Remengesau says.