Palauans protest against a plan to roll back their national marine sanctuary
When Palau announced it would ban all international fleets and cut off most of its waters to fishing in 2015, it was hailed as a conservation leader. But his government is now citing the economic difficulties linked to the pandemic to justify the reopening of up to 70% of its waters, just over two years since the sanctuary came into force.
Community groups are protesting the impending rollback, criticizing their government for its lack of consultation and evidence while questioning the level of involvement of an international nonprofit organization in the process.
The bill introduced in March in the Pacific island nation’s House of Delegates specifically cites The Nature Conservancy’s involvement and support in its bid to ease sanctuary restrictions. And as politicians cite economic recovery and food security among their justifications for the move, the community questions their motives.
A country of 14,000 people, Palau’s total gross domestic product fell 17% in 2021, according to the Asian Development Bankwhich was used to advocate for the redesign of the sanctuary.
One concern with the proposed change was the lack of public consultation. There was only one last-minute hearing, which took place after the bill was introduced and just before the seventh international Our Ocean conference was held in the country.
Former President Tommy Remengesau Jr. said most residents oppose rolling back the sanctuary and it was an awkward decision to make just before the conference.
The lack of consultation was “shocking”, said Remengesau, who led the formation of the sanctuary for years after Palau committed to it in 2015. He also cited a lack of comparative analysis on the effect of the sanctuary on fish populations.
The Politically Important Council of Chiefs, which advises the President, oppose the movement with much of the community. Many protested at the Our Ocean conference, originally scheduled for 2020.
“And don’t forget, (the conference) came to Palau because of the marine sanctuary,” Remengesau said.
Remengesau says the shrine was a grassroots initiative, fueled at first by the people of Palau, fishermen and the Council of Chiefs.
At the time, thousands of Palauans signed a petition urging the National Congress to pass the shrine legislation, which also had the support of the country’s Chamber of Commerce, Council of Chiefs and several other official organizations.
Remengesau says the whole premise of closing 80% of the ocean was based on tradition: The sanctuary is a “bul,” a ban on fishing imposed by traditional leaders and chiefs to allow stocks to recover.
“So this has been established not only by law, but also by tradition and cultural practices,” he said.
Planning a blue economy
The marine sanctuary has become a political football in Palau’s 2020 presidential elections. The candidates criticized the broken promises for the national fishery which, although it did not have competition from international fleets, did not bring the expected benefits.
Then the pandemic hit the Pristine Paradise Environmental Fund – a $100 tax on tourists collected for conservation – which stopped bringing money to the country. Tourism represents 20% of the country’s employment and GDP.
Revamping PNMS was high on the priority list of President Surangel Whipps Jr., who took office in 2021, a year after the sanctuary was fully implemented after a five-year transition period.
Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment Minister Steven Victor said talks about redesigning the sanctuary began about a year ago.
Victor joined the government of Nature conservationwhere he had worked since 2009 and rose to the position of director of the nonprofit’s Micronesia program.
“When the sanctuary was first put in place, and especially the closure of much of the EEZ, I was worried,” Victor said. “What I see now is the kind of challenges I perceived in 2015.”
A year before the sanctuary plans were announced, The Nature Conservancy had submitted a partnership proposal with Palau to help “demonstrate a new model for regional fisheries management” that would “serve as a blueprint for regional reform demonstrating that countries do not need to compromise between environmental and economic benefits.
The proposal would have closed 50% of Palau’s waters and implemented longline fisheries reforms, but Remengesau rejected the plans.
While the government cites the lack of economic benefits for the country, a local media Island Hours cited a government report showing that Palau earned $16.5 million from tuna between 2011 and 2014, before the PNMS was enacted.
The report showed he earned $37.9 million from tuna fishing in the three years after the sanctuary went into effect, using fishing days, which Palau can sell under the Vessel Days Scheme, which is part of the agreement between the parties in Nauru which allows companies to pay a daily fee to fish. in waters other than their own.
The Whipps government is implementing a plan somewhat similar to what The Nature Conservancy had proposed, but Victor does not believe there is a conflict of interest despite his previous role with the nonprofit organization.
“It just so happened to fit with what The Nature Conservancy prioritizes in terms of its conservation vision. So I don’t see that as a conflict,” Victor said in an interview.
The current plan will maintain the status quo for three years for mapping and analysis of Palau’s waters and other planning purposes, while the end goal is to restore the longline fishery, improve the cane industry and to develop aquaculture. The plan’s minimum protection for Palau’s waters would be 30%.
Whipps traveled to California in late March, facilitated by The Nature Conservancy, where he secured $10.8 million in support for the new regime from the conservation, Nia Tero, Blue Native Alliance and the director of the Chris Larsen cryptocurrency, according to Victor.
Conservation Micronesia program director Noah Idechong, who is the former speaker of the Palau House, said the implementation of the sanctuary was “just a bad time” just before the pandemic, but also lacked viable and sustainable financing options.
Although he says The Nature Conservancy is committed to supporting Palau in all the decisions it makes, Idechong says there is more information and data than before to help inform management decisions.
Idechong was specifically mentioned in the bill submitted to the House of Delegates by the Ways and Means Committee, which sought his “input and research assistance”.
In the bill, Idechong questioned the effectiveness of fully protecting 80% of the waters, citing recently published articles.
Idechong said more is now known about tuna migration and climate change, so it was important to make sure conservation matched the science.
But Idechong, speaking for himself and not conservation, says the way the bill was rolled out by the government doomed his plans.
“I don’t think the PNMS will open, I just don’t think so,” Idechong said. “I think the protests and stuff is because (people) don’t know what’s going on, because there’s no understanding, no conversation.”
The bill sparked a backlash from community organizations who staged protests and launched petitions, one of which has received at least 2,500 signatures so far.
Ann Singeo, executive director of a local environmental group, said passing the bill did not take into account that the community had begun to see some recovery in the national fishing area.
Before the establishment of the sanctuary, the country had suffered the environmental effects of overfishing and the locals were unable to compete with foreign tuna boats, she said.
“It’s the main source of protein in the community, the peach,” Singeo said. “From the start, when I worked with fishermen to support the enactment of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, their fundamental issue was their ability to catch tuna off the reef.”
Now, just when fishermen were starting to do so, hearing the news of the bill left them “very upset and frustrated”, Singeo said.
Remengesau, a fisherman himself, says recent sport fishing competitions and conversations with anglers have confirmed that the marine environment is recovering, with anglers landing marlin weighing hundreds of pounds and yellowfin tuna weighing around 80 pounds.
More pelagic fish such as marlin and tuna were an indication that the sanctuary was resuming its previous function, Remengesau said.
And the interest of the people, says Remengesau, is the future of their country and of the sanctuary.
“When it comes to the outlook or the mindset of the people of Palau, it’s not just about the money,” Remengesau said. “It’s really about the future of our children, the sustainable way of life of our people.”