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Palau's marine sanctuary backfires, leading to increased consumption of reef fish

Palau’s much-touted marine sanctuary has backfired, with the fishing ban leading to an increased consumption of the reef fish in the western Pacific country – such as grouper, snapper and parrotfish – that the marine sanctuary promised to protect.

Palau introduced a new 500,000 sq km (193,000 sq mile) marine sanctuary on 1 January to much fanfare.

The establishment of the sanctuary, which is twice the size of Mexico and is the world’s sixth-largest fully protected area, saw Palau close 80% of its economic exclusion zone to commercial fishing as well as activities like drilling for oil.

While the closure of the EEZ to commercial fishing aimed to reduce pressure on the reef by encouraging sustainable domestic fishing of fish like tuna, the ban has actually led to a shortage as commercial fishing vessels have moved out of Palau’s waters.

As a result, shops and restaurants in Palau are serving up vulnerable reef fish instead of pelagic fish like tuna.

“It will be the opposite of what we wanted,” said Yimnang Golbuu, chief executive of Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) and administrator of the marine sanctuary, of reports of increased consumption of reef fish. “That’s why its important to develop that constant supply [of tuna].”

Golbuu said that even before the marine sanctuary was created, there was not a constant supply of tuna in the restaurants and the supermarkets in Palau.

He said the problem had been exacerbated after one of the commercial fishing vessel companies, Palau International Traders Corporation (PITI), announced that it would no longer conduct fishing activity in Palau’s waters, as the marine sanctuary made it “not financially viable”.

“Maybe initially it’s becoming worse because all of the sudden PITI [pulled out of Palau’s waters] and it’s Chinese New Year and no one is fishing and maybe it is becoming a problem, hopefully as we develop the domestic fishery we will achieve our goal,” said Golbuu.

Following the implementation of the marine sanctuary, several restaurants in Palau have stopped offering tuna on their menus, and were either serving reef fish or imported fish like salmon and frozen basa.

Tkel Etpison, owner of Drop Off, a well-known seafood restaurant whose tuna poke is a popular dish, said that they have been forced to recommend reef fish dishes to customers due to the tuna shortage, though Etpison said he had concerns about doing so.

“We try to encourage eating more commercial fish than reef fish. I think that’s the concern as a dive operator and bar owner that we will see less and less fish on the reef,” he said.

Surangel Whipps Jr., the owner of one of the biggest supermarkets in Palau, said he had been forced to stock more reef fish due to the shortage.

“We were selling tuna, filleted tuna, and then now that there is no tuna, they are buying more reef fish, so we’re putting more pressure on resources we are trying to protect,” he said, adding that the marine sanctuary was “a good initiative but we need to increase the capacity of our local fishing industry.”

Critics say Palau should have made sure to develop a local tuna industry before introducing the marine sanctuary.

Umiich Sengebau, the minister for natural resources, environment and tourism, said efforts were being made to create a local tuna industry, “but nothing happens overnight”.

Sengebau said one solution was for Congress to provide subsidies to local fishermen to buy big enough vessels to take them offshore.