Palau legislators are seeking to end the more than two-decade-old ban on fishing Napoleon Wrass and Bumphead Parrotfish, two of the country’s endangered species, but the bill seeking to lift the ban is facing resistance from scientists and conservationists.
On Feb. 18, President Remengesau referred back to the Olbiil Era Kekulau (OEK) SB 10-78, SD1 with amendments that is in line with both the Palauan tradition and recommendations from scientific experts. Remengesau asked the OEK to maintain the fishing ban and allow fishing of Bumphead Parrot Fish only if it will not threaten the health and sustainability of the species, but no permits will be issued before Feb. 1, 2022 .
Dr. Yvonne Sadovy of the University of Hong Kong warns that opening up Palau's fishing grounds for Napoleon Wrass and Bumphead Parrotfish two months a year could spike demand and may result in illegal exports and potential abuse.
In an interview with ABC Radio Australia, Sadovy noted loopholes in the bill that she said could potentially be abused, such as the lack of a quota, which could allow massive export of the endangered species. She said a high demand could result in having the fish winding up in Asian markets illegally if controls are not in place.
Sadovy pointed out that in Hong Kong and China, Napoleon Wrasse and the Bumphead Parrotfish can fetch several hundred dollars per kilo. "I support traditional and customary use of fish, but without limits, without the quota, I think there's great potential for abuse," she said.
Palau’s Congress is pushing President Tommy Remengesau Jr. to sign the bill, which would open Palau's fishing grounds two months a year and allow the harvest of Napoleon Wrasse and the Bumphead Parrotfish for personal consumption and traditional ceremonies.
The bill is supported by Palauan elders, Palau fishermen and community members, who determined that the fish stocks are now healthy and opening the fishing grounds two months a year for local consumption won't create much impact.
In the same radio interview, Yimnang Golbuu, the head of Palau International Coral Reef Center, believes a two-month open season wouldn't have a big impact on stocks. He is confident officials will be able to monitor fish numbers.
The Marine Protection Act of 1994 prohibits fishing Napoleon Wrasse and the Bumphead Parrotfish, which, prior to the ban, had been mainstay dishes in traditional ceremonies and other local events.
In a recent press briefing, Remengesau told local reporters that his action on the bill would be based on scientific evidence.
Meanwhile, an online petition that rejects the measure and supports the protection of Palau's Napoleon Wrass and Bumbphead Parrotfish is gaining strength.
The online petition started by Christina Hepburn, a Canadian diver who had been traveling to Palau regularly for the past 15 years, has garnered over 4,600 signatures as of Feb. 18.
Hepburn pointed out causes for concern such as the absence of a catch limit and lack of monitoring system. Hepburn said the bill runs counter to the administration’s marine conservation efforts.
The bill, Hepburn said, is roughly drafted, has no catch limit, no minimum or maximum size specification and will open the door for anyone who wants to fish for Napoleon Wrasse and the Bumphead Parrotfish. "Palau is blessed to have magnificent marine life and the ecosystem balance here, like everywhere else on earth, needs to be respected and protected," Hepburn said.
She added that "to allow the fishing of Napoleon Wrass and Bumphead Parrotfish will significantly reduce their population rapidly and affect the environmental balance of marine life in Palau."
The Marine Protection Act of 1994 passed by the 4th Olbiil Era Kelulau banned the commercial fishing of the juvenile and adult Napoleon Wrasse Bumbhead Parrotfish. The purpose of this Act is to protect and promote the sustainable use of all species of marine animals and plants other than marine birds.