In midst of the world’s largest ocean, a desperate sea battle is being fought, with pirates, poachers and illegal fishing ships on one side, and on the other, Palau, a remote nation of 250 islands scattered like gorgeous green marbles across the great blue blanket of the western Pacific.
And the action has recently become superheated, with the island’s authorities—unwilling to simply sit back and witness their environment and economy being destroyed—resorting to extreme measures, including the torching of ships caught with illegal cargo such as shark fins.
Known as the Serengeti of the Sea, the ocean around Palau is home to 1500 species of fish, including more than 100 species of sharks and rays, and 500 species of coral. Reefs around the archipelago house more fish, coral and other invertebrates per square mile than anywhere else on earth, and Palau is a mecca for divers, especially those who wish to encounter sharks.
For decades, however, this extraordinary degree of biodiversity has attracted unwelcome visitors too, including pirates and poachers chasing prey to feed a growing market demand for shark-fin soup, a delicacy in many Asian countries. The harvesting process is mind-blowingly brutal. Fishermen will catch sharks, hack off their fins and throw the rest of the animal back into the water—often still alive, but fatally injured.
Because they take decades to mature, and produce relative few young, sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. It’s estimated that around 100 million sharks are killed each year around the world, and one third of oceanic shark species are at risk of extinction.
This threatens not just shark populations, but also the entire ecosystem they preside over. As apex predators, sharks play a crucial role in keeping the oceans healthy, targeting slow, sick and weak fish and preventing the spread of potentially devastating diseases.
In 2009, Palau led the world by taking direct action against this shocking butchery and waste. The country created the planet’s first shark sanctuary, which now stretches across 600,000 sq km (230,000 sq miles) of ocean, a vast watery expanse roughly the size of France. Marine biologists have reported that the decline of shark populations has at least slowed as a result, and other countries have now followed suit, with the Maldives, Honduras and the Bahamas establishing shark sanctuaries.
More than half of Palau’s gross domestic product comes from tourism—much of it focussed specifically on diving. To put that in perspective, it has been calculated that, in a single year, a live shark can earn 1000 times more for Palau’s economy than a dead shark will fetch at a market (where the money goes into a poacher’s pocket).
And the issue goes beyond simple economics for the people of the Pacific, where the ocean seeps into every facet of life. In Palauan culture, the shark signifies bravery and strength, and traditional meetinghouses, Bais, are often adorned with images of the sharks.
‘You can’t overstate the importance of the sanctuary,’ KB Sakuma, Special Adviser to the President of Palau, told Love Nature. ‘It’s essential to our survival. You see hundreds of tour boats going out every morning and they’re here to witness our marine resources. Everyday fishermen go out to catch fish to feed their families. Pacific Islanders are inherently connected to the ocean. It’s what defines us. It’s what sustains us. It’s what makes us who we are and an attack on that is a direct attack on our livelihood.’
Encouraged by the success of the sanctuary, but still facing enormous logistical problems in the policing of the project, Palau took an even bigger step in 2014, imposing a complete ban on all foreign fishing within its waters. The country effectively established the world’s largest marine sanctuary, a swath of ocean nearly the size of California where no commercial fishing could legally take place.
As a result, pocket-sized Palau is now punching well above its weight and playing a pioneering role in the conservation of a plethora of marine life, including highly threatened species such as the Napoleon (or humphead) wrasse, another prized target of foreign poacher ships.
Growing to almost two metres (six feet) and weighing up to 180kg (400lb), Napoleon wrasse are one of the largest fishes on the reef, but in Hong Kong and southern China, they’re highly valued in the live reef fish trade, fetching for more than $250 per kilo ($500 per pound). Populations of Napoleon wrasse have declined by 50 per cent in the last 30 years.
The people of Palau hope the fishing ban will protect this endangered species before it’s fished out of existence, but for a country with no military or navy, keeping predatory fishing boats out of its sprawling waters is very tough.
Granting legal protection to an area of ocean is one thing, but enforcing the law is another, and at any given time, Palau’s territorial waters can contain as many as 50 fishing vessels, including pirate ships loaded down with a gory haul. And it’s not just tuna, sharks and other pelagic species that are falling victim to this illicit trade.
‘Recently, we’ve been capturing vessels that have been coming closer to shore, actually onto the reefs, and harvesting sea cucumber and reef fish,’ says KB Sakuma. ‘Reef species are really sensitive to overfishing and just one illegal large scale vessel coming in at night poaching a certain area of reef could decimate it for years to come.’
Palau’s best weapon against illegal fishing is the Remeliik, a 32-metre-long, Pacific-class patrol boat provided by the Australian government. But it’s a big battle. This one boat is tasked with keeping guard over 600,000 sq km of ocean, and catching offenders red-handed is extremely difficult, especially with organised poachers getting craftier and using evermore sophisticated tactics such as transshipping.
‘They sneak into a country’s EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] or territorial waters illegally, they poach the resources there, and then they flee to the high seas pockets—the territories that are unmanaged by countries—and there the mother ships are waiting for them,’ explains KB Sakuma. ‘They unload to the mother ships, they refill with gas and ice and then [start again]. You could catch that vessel directly after transshipping and they wouldn’t have anything in their hold, and so it’s difficult with limited resources.’
But the people of the island are not prepared to sit back and be victims. They’re determined to fight fire with fire. Quite literally.
‘The prosecution and the detainment of illegal fishing vessels and crew is difficult for a small country so we’ve had to resort to drastic measures,’ says KB Sakuma. ‘Last year, after capturing six Vietnamese vessels within our reefs, Palau made the decision to strip the vessels of all hazardous and toxic materials, all fuel and oil, and then take them out to sea and burn them.
‘We’re not sending them back for them to be reloaded with crew and fuel and equipment and be sent right back to Palau to get more of our fish. We’re burning the vessels at sea with as little environmental impact as possible, but basically sending a message to the international community saying this is a huge problem. We’re not standing for it anymore. Either stand with us or this is what’s going to happen.’