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Pacific Note Editorial: Where the Palau Marine Sanctuary is going

Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr.’s baby — the Palau National Marine Sanctuary — turns one last month. Like any creation in its nascent stage, there is an abundant hope for its future. But this child still has a lot to learn.

The sanctuary may look impressive on paper, but on the ground it has failed to meet expectations in pretty fundamental ways.

While Palau continues to enjoy revenues from the vessel day scheme — the sum has reached $6 million — the nation has yet to see the economic activity anticipated from the 80 percent closure of the island nation’s exclusive economic zone.

The Palau government has established a task force to lay out the national policy for high-end, high-value tourism, with the marine sanctuary as the main selling point. It is hoped that a more strategic approach to the whole tourism industry around a marine sanctuary can draw quality visitors and build a more resilient tourism base economy.

The hope to create a national fishing fleet that is owned and run by Palauans is still a long way from becoming a reality but there is a lurking threat of “Palauan-fronted” fishing businesses getting pulled into international cartels engaging in shady deals thatinvolve bribery and other forms of government corruption.

It has yet to be proven that the 20 percent of Palau waters open for fishing can be a lucrative business for the locally chartered fishing association. Though in existence for several years is still in its infancy when it comes to securing its own fishing vessels.

The marine sanctuary should not just be about painting a pretty picture to lure in tourists. It should increase economic activity through the fishing industry, be it employment, generating sales for local vendors, and increases in tax receipts for the government.

Conservation of resources is as much about food security as it is about preserving the environment. The marine sanctuary doesn’t actually start until 50 miles offshore, the near-shore reefs where the majority of fish consumed within Palau are caught, is facing pressure from harvesting as the increasing tourists has led to less and smaller size fish at the market.

This is the biggest flaw of the national marine sanctuary – protecting the offshore from fishing activity while shifting more undue pressure on near shore reefs.

Palau has received worldwide recognition for its leadership and prescient policies in conservation. One of the nation’s cornerstone in marine conservation is the Protected Areas Network, in which Palau has to effectively conserve and manage 30 percent of its marine waters and 20 percent of its terrestrial habitat.

If it wasn’t for PAN there would be no protection afforded to Palau’s reefs at all. The PNMS has still a lot to prove as a viable policy for Palau’s seafood security.

The situation with seafood and tourism in Palau is fundamentally unsustainable.

Tourists are eating a huge amount of reef fish on a daily basis. There are many cases of protected species being served and undersized fish being sold. When caught, businesses w pay a paltry fine and carry on from where they left off undeterred. The only change they make is telling their customers not share photos on social media.

Protected species have been harvested and sold to tourists because of their prized status and gradually their numbers gets depleted to a point where recovery is difficult. Mature size fish have decreased in numbers limiting the ability of a species to increase its population putting economic constraints to the fisherman as well as the tourist establishment.

Additionally many tour operators fronted by Palauans but being managed by foreigners are catching a huge amount of reef fish as part of the unregulated night fishing excursions available.

These establishments should not just get a slap on the wrist and then just carry on with their unscrupulous business practices.

It’s not sustainable tourism if authorities look the other way when direct evidence of illegal activities is presented to them.

Like a growing child, the one-year-old national marine sanctuary needs good foundations and a nurturing home in which to grow to reach its potentials.

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