Ban commercial fishing: Palau’s goal

And use drones for surveillance

By Giff Johnson

July 2013

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Palau is aiming to become the first Pacific nation to ban commercial fishing in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). And in another unprecedented move, it will conduct a trial next month using drones for fisheries enforcement.

Soon after taking office for his third tour-year term, President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. announced his plan to ban commercial fishing and establish a working group to review the plan.

His announcement caused a stir in the fisheries and business world in large part because it is unprecedented in a region where most countries depend heavily on revenue from foreign fishing nations.
Remengesau’s long-term focus on environment, dating back to his first two terms in office from 2000-2008, underscores his belief that Palau’s resources are of value beyond dollar signs.
While it won’t be known until 2014 if the plan for what Remengesau describes as a “total marine sanctuary” will go into effect, it is drawing support from conservationists.

Noah Idechong, founder of Palau Conservation Society and a former Speaker of the Palau National Congress, is on Remengesau’s working group reviewing the proposal.
“We have to do these things (for a sustainable future),” Idechong said at the end of May on a visit to Majuro where Palau, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia officials met to discuss expansion of marine conservation management efforts in the north Pacific.

“We don’t want the world to dictate to us. We have to think for ourselves.”
Remengesau is blunt about his plan for a total marine sanctuary: “It is in our best interests to do this. It is for the long-term sustainability of Palau and our contribution to the region—no commercial fishing.”
Remengesau believes there is momentum to make commercial fishing ban happen next year.
“We’re looking at it from all angles and the early review say it can work.”

And Remengesau’s ratcheting up enforcement with the rollout of airborne drones, like those being used by the US Government in the war in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The first test of the drones will be conducted in August in Palau by an Australian company, Remengesau said.
The main issue in the ban centers on how to replace the approximately US$5 million annually that Palau generates from allowing commercial fishing in its waters.
Compared to revenues Palau is producing from its tourism industry, Remengesau called fisheries money “negligible. It’s a drop in the bucket.”

Because Palau is on the fringe of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) fishing area where 70 percent of the region’s skipjack tuna is caught, most commercial fishing is concentrated to the south and east of Palau. Palau is not as dependent on fisheries revenue as are Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands and other PNA members, making it easier for Remengesau to take this step.
Under the PNA arrangement, Palau is allotted about 500 fishing days a year, out of approximately 50,000 annually. At the current minimum sales price of US$5,000 per day, Palau’s potential PNA day sales translate to US$2.5 million.
“There really is not much tuna fishing in our EEZ,” Remengesau said. “We can sell our fishing days to augment other (PNA members).”

This way, Palau can have its cake and eat it too. Even without fishing in Palau waters, it can generate fisheries revenue by selling its fishing days to other PNA members, which it has done successfully in the past.
The business community will be concerned about revenue and job loss if fewer fishing vessels visit Koror for fuel, supplies and crew changes. But Palau has already established a name for itself in the conservation world by effectively implementing marine “protected area networks” at the village level around Palau and by banning shark finning in its 200-mile EEZ.

Remengesau sees creating a total marine sanctuary as the obvious next step in Palau’s effort to conserve its resources. “We will be making our contribution to sustaining the migratory tuna stock as well as within Palau,” he said.
PNA’s tuna management is about “conservation, not just selling fishing days (to distant water fishing nations),” he adds.

With Palau now attracting in excess of 100,000 tourists annually, the country sees the benefit of maintaining its beauty and conserving natural resources that in turn attract visitors.
“Palau is very fortunate to be bestowed with natural resources not found elsewhere,” he said. “This comes with a responsibility to ensure these are here for the next generation.”
Remengesau said the concept of people inheriting their islands from previous generations needs to be revised to: “We are borrowing our environment from our future children. We’re a fragile and small island. The only way to sustain ourselves is to put our environment first for our people and economic opportunities that come from the environment.”

Still, Palau is a frequent target of illegal fishing by foreign fleets and with only one patrol vessel, the government is hard-pressed to conduct effective surveillance.
“The enforcement side is very important,” Remengesau said. The working group he has established is considering ways to beef up marine surveillance. His aim is to find innovative ways—such as using drones and partnering with other governments and non-government groups—to improve enforcement and expand cooperation on conservation.

Remengesau said he recently talked to officials at the US Pacific Command in Hawaii who said the use of drones for marine enforcement was “doable”.
“We’re already doing shiprider surveillance with the US,” said Remengesau in reference to Palau law enforcement officials who ride on US Coast Guard and navy vessels for marine surveillance. Drone technology is available and “it’s an idea whose time has come,” he said.
Palau will conduct its first drone tests in August. “We’re working with an Australian drone manufacturer,” he said.

“They’ve done a preliminary assessment and said it can work.”
For Palau, its distant southwest islands of Tobi, Sonsorol and Helen’s Reef are known areas of illegal fishing.
The range of the drones allows for a control center to be set up on Angaur Island, which is about 400 miles from these small islands and located near Koror, the capital, making logistics easier.
“The southwest islands are a hotspot for illegal fishing,” he said, adding that this area will be the focus of the initial drone enforcement work. Palau has one patrol vessel, the Australian-provided Remeliik. It costs US$37,000 to send it to the southwest islands and back on a patrol mission. In contrast, to operate a drone for 20 hours costs US$360, he said.

Without reliable information about the whereabouts of vessels fishing illegally in Palau waters, it can be a waste of time and money to dispatch its lone patrol vessel.
The plan is to relay information from the drones to the patrol vessel. Other details, such as the use of drone photographs for prosecution of vessels need to be worked out.
“We’ll do a dry run in August, set up the equipment and let our leaders see the drones in operation,” Remengesau said. “We hope it will be successful and can be implemented throughout the Pacific. We all share the same challenge of monitoring our borders, which are mostly water.”

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