Palau Senate wants to delay marine sanctuary implementation

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Surangel and Sons, one of the big supermarket on Palau started to sell freshly caught tuna in their store. The tuna is provided by small-scale fishermen. (Photo: Richard W. Brooks)

Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. is not shutting down the request from the Japanese government to allow small scale fishermen from Okinawa to fish in Palau’s waters even after the implementation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS) beyond 2020.

However, Remengesau said fishing should occur in the Domestic Fishing Zone which encompasses 85,896 square miles of the country’s  Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with 80 percent of the EEZ a “no-take zone.”

“We are not going to compromise the integrity of the PNMS,” He said.  “We are however mindful of the 20 per cent domestic fishing zone, which is a big area.”

Japan is one of Palau’s closest ally with  millions of aid provided to the country to build roads,  infrastructure and  recently a new patrol boat to help police Palau’s EEZ.

Japan has also  pledged support for Palau’s hosting of the Our Oceans Conference in 2020.

Under the PNMS law, a dedicated 20 per cent of the EEZ will be accessible to domestic fishing fleets. But the domestic fishing zone will be reserved for local fishermen and will prohibit exports. The law also required that any fish caught in the domestic fishing zone should be offloaded in Palau. 

Currently, the fishermen from Okinawa conduct fishing outside the 20 per cent Domestic Fishing Zone. 

However, Remengesau is keen to accommodate the fishermen alluding to the possibility of amendments to the PNMS law specifically about the provision that requires that all catches should be offloaded in Palau.  

“It’s about the livelihood of their people, its not a commercial operation; the question is can we do a win win situation? I think we can,” he told reporters. Japan also has the backing of the Senate which recently passed a joint resolution supporting  the wishes of the small-scale fishermen . 

(Photo: Richard W. Brooks)

Senate Joint Resolution 10-45 supports the Government of Japan’s request to allow vessels to continue its commercial fishing operation.

The Senate Committee on Resources, Commerce, Trade and Development stated in its report that Japan has assisted Palau in various infrastructure development and capacity building and that it should “reciprocate” by allowing some “fishing rights.” 

There is also a move from the Palau Senate to  delay Remengesau’s signature policy.   Sen. Frank Kyota, chair of the Senate Committee said  in an interview that his panel and several other senators will endorse the bill that seeks a delay of the PNMS implementation to 2025 instead of 2020

Kyota said extending the wind-down period would allow the country to recover from the tourism slump and increase revenues from the Pristine Paradise Environmental Fee (PPEF).  The fee is collected from visitors to Palau. 

A portion of the fee would go to the PNMS fund to support the implementation of the law.

But despite the tourism slowdown, Remengesau said it would hardly affect revenues it collects from foreign fishing licenses.

Remengesau said revenues that will be earned from the PPEF and the benefits to Palau from the Parties of Nauru Agreement’s (PNA) Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) are bigger than the income it could earn from licensing of commercial fishing in Palau.

“So it’s not so much an emergency impact if there will be no fishing because the money we receive from licensing  is a small amount compared to what we get from PPEF and also from what we receive from PNA,” Remengesau told reporters at apress conference .  

Based on the Ministry of Finance Financial report for the fourth quarter of 2018, Palau earned $8.4 million from fishing days under the PNA’s VDS while it earned only $767,417 from fish exports. Revenues collected from PPEF amounted to  $1,034,775.

 Enacted in October 2015, the law set aside 500,000 square kilometers or 80 per cent of its maritime waters for full protection with the rest set aside as domestic fishing zone.

With less than a year before it is implemented, the President vowed to reject  any attempt to delay the policy. 

However, Kyota said the Senate wants to pass the bill to generate discussions on how the tourism numbers will impact the PNMS funding mechanism.

Kyota said the Senate is not  “destroying the PNMS,”  with their push to delay the implementation but extending the wind-down period to give Palau time to recover from the tourism slump.

He noted that although he expects that the President will reject the bill, the Senate wants to be on record that it has tried to save the PNMS from losing revenues due to the tourism slowdown.

In a January 11 letter to the Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism Minister, Umiich Sengebau, Kyota’s committee raised concerns that revenues from the VDS will decrease as well when the PNMS is fully implemented.

 The committee said “since our economic frailty is an urgent matter,” the Senate needs to act on the proposed bill expeditiously.

 Sengebau in response to the committee’s concerns said there are locally-based fishing companies that are looking into the options of maintaining operations beyond the full implementation of the PNMS, such as fishing outside of Palau’s waters or at the high seas and offloading their catch here. 

The Minister also clarified that Palau can continue to earn money from the VDS through directly selling its vessel days directly to companies and any surplus days can be traded to another PNA member country.

The VDS sets an overall Total Allowable Effort (TAE) limit on the number of days fishing vessels can be licensed to fish in PNA Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) per year. Each country is allocated a share of the TAE for use in its zone each year.

These VDS days can be traded between countries in cases where a country has used up all its days while another has spare days.

The minimum benchmark for a vessel day fee for purse seiners is at $8,000.