When Palau announced it would ban all international fleets and cut off most of its waters to fishing in 2015, it was lauded as a leader in conservation. But its government is now citing pandemic-related economic woes to justify reopening up to 70% of its waters, just over two years since the sanctuary took effect.

Community groups are protesting the pending rollback, criticizing their government for a lack of consultation and evidence while questioning the level of involvement of an international environmental nonprofit in the process.

The bill introduced in March in the Pacific island nation’s House of Delegates specifically cites the involvement and support of The Nature Conservancy in its bid to ease the sanctuary’s restrictions. And as politicians point to economic recovery and food security among their justifications for the move, the community is calling their motives into question.

Palau National Marine Sanctuary has been in place since January 2020 but was a key subject in presidential elections later that year, as candidates were dissatisfied by anticipated payoffs. Courtesy: Pew Charitable Trusts

A country of 14,000, Palau’s total gross domestic product dropped by 17% in 2021, according to the Asia Development Bank, which has been used to argue for the sanctuary overhaul.

One concern about the proposed change has been a lack of public consultation. There was just one last-minute hearing, which came after the bill was tabled and just before the seventh international Our Ocean Conference took place in the country.

Former President Tommy Remengesau Jr. said most residents oppose rolling back the sanctuary, and that it was an embarrassing move to make right before the conference.

The lack of consultation was “shocking,” said Remengesau, who led the years-long formation of the sanctuary after Palau committed to it in 2015. He also cited a lack of comparative analysis on the sanctuary’s effect on fish populations.

The politically important Council of Chiefs, which advises the president, opposes the move along with much of the community. Many protested during the Our Ocean Conference, which was originally scheduled for 2020.

“And don’t forget, (the conference) came to Palau because of the marine sanctuary,” Remengesau said.

Remengesau says the sanctuary was a grassroots initiative, first fueled by the people of Palau, fishermen and the Council of Chiefs.

At the time, thousands of Palauans signed a petition to urge the National Congress to pass the sanctuary legislation, which also had support from the country’s chamber of commerce, Council of Chiefs and several other official organizations.

Remengesau says the entire premise of closing off 80% of the ocean was based in tradition: The sanctuary is a “bul,” a fishing prohibition imposed by traditional leaders and chiefs to let stocks recuperate.

“So it was established not just by law, but also established by tradition and cultural practices,” he said.

Planning A Blue Economy

The marine sanctuary became a political football during Palau’s 2020 presidential elections. Candidates criticized unfulfilled promises for the domestic fishery which, despite not having competition from international fleets, was not providing the planned benefits.

Then the pandemic hit the Pristine Paradise Environmental Fund – a $100 tax on tourists collected for conservation – which stopped bringing in money for the country. Tourism accounts for 20% of employment and the country’s GDP.

Reorganizing the PNMS was high on the list of priorities for President Surangel Whipps Jr., who came into office in 2021, a year after the sanctuary was fully implemented following a five-year phase-in period.

Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment Minister Steven Victor said talks about overhauling the sanctuary started about a year ago.

Victor joined the government from The Nature Conservancy, where he had worked since 2009 and ascended to the role of director for the nonprofit’s Micronesia program.

“When the sanctuary was first put out, and particularly the closing of a large part of the EEZ, I was concerned,” Victor said. “What I’m seeing now are the sort of challenges I perceived back in 2015.”

A year before sanctuary plans were announced, The Nature Conservancy had submitted a proposal to partner with Palau to help “demonstrate a new model for regional fisheries management” that would “serve as a model for regional reform demonstrating that countries need not trade off between environmental and economic benefits.”

The proposal would have closed off 50% of Palau’s waters and implemented longline fishing reforms but Remengesau rejected the plans.

While the government cites the lack of economic payoff for the country, local news outlet Island Times cited a government report showing Palau earned $16.5 million from tuna between 2011 and 2014, before the PNMS was enacted.

The report showed it earned $37.9 million from tuna fishing in the three years after the sanctuary became law, using fishing days, which Palau can sell under the Vessel Days Scheme, part of the Parties to Nauru Agreement that lets companies pay a daily rate to fish in waters outside their own.

Whipps’ government is implementing a plan somewhat similar to what The Nature Conservancy had proposed but Victor does not feel there is a conflict of interest despite his prior role with the nonprofit.

Palau President Surangel S. Whipps Our Ocean Conference Palau
Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. spoke at the 7th Our Ocean Conference in Palau. Jesse Alpert/U.S. State Department/2022

“It just so happened to be in line with what The Nature Conservancy prioritizes in terms of how it’s looking at conservation. So I don’t see it as a conflict,” Victor said in an interview.

The current plan will keep the status quo for three years for mapping and analyzing Palau’s waters and other planning purposes, while the eventual goal is to reestablish longline fisheries, improve the pole-and-line industry and increase aquaculture. The plan’s minimum protection for Palau’s waters would be 30%.

Whipps visited California in late March, facilitated by The Nature Conservancy, where he secured $10.8 million in support for the new regime from the conservancy, Nia Tero, Blue Nature Alliance and cryptocurrency executive Chris Larsen, according to Victor.

The conservancy’s Micronesia Program Director Noah Idechong, who is Palau’s former House speaker, said the sanctuary’s implementation was “just bad timing” coming just before the pandemic, but also lacked viable sustainable financing options.

Though he says The Nature Conservancy is committed to supporting Palau in whatever decision 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 cast doubt over the efficacy of fully protecting 80% of the waters, citing recently published papers.

Protests have been held by environmental groups such as Ebiil Society, during and after the Our Ocean conference, which attracted dignitaries from around the world. Courtesy: Ann Singeo/Ebiil Society

Idechong said there was now more 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 the conservancy, says the way the bill was rolled out by the government has doomed its plans.

“I don’t think the PNMS will open, I just don’t think so,” Idechong said. “I think the demonstrations and things are because (the people) don’t know what’s going on, because there’s not understanding, no conversation.”

Pushing Back

The bill has triggered pushback from community organizations that have held demonstrations and launched petitions, one of which has received at least 2,500 signatures thus far.

Ann Singeo, executive director of a local environmental group, says passing the bill did not consider that the community had started to see some recovery within the domestic fishing zone.

 

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Prior to the sanctuary’s creation, the country had suffered the environmental effects of overfishing and locals were unable to compete with foreign tuna vessels, she says.

“This is the major source of protein in the community, the fishery,” Singeo said. “Right from the beginning, when I worked with fishermen to support the enacting of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, their basic problem was their ability to catch tuna outside of the reef.”

Now, just as fishermen were starting to do so, to hear news of the bill left them “very upset and frustrated,” Singeo said.

Remengesau, a fisherman himself, says that recent sport fishing competitions and conversations with fishermen have confirmed that the marine environment is bouncing back, as fishermen were landing marlin weighing hundreds of pounds and yellowfin weighing around 80 pounds.

IUCN speaker Palau President Tommy Remengesau. 1 sept 2016
Former Palau President Tommy Remengesau at an International Union for Conservation of Nature meeting in 2016 in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

More pelagic fish such as marlin and tuna was an indication that the sanctuary was resuming its previous function, Remengesau said.

And the interest of the people, Remengesau says, is the future of their country and the sanctuary.

“When it comes to the outlook or the mindset of the people of Palau, it’s not all about money,” Remengesau said. “It’s really about the future of our children, the sustainable way of life of our people.”

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