Sub headline Banning fishing in Palau’s EEZ

‘Imposing a ban is one thing. Enforcing it is quite another. As well as losing revenue by banning fishing in its exclusive zone, it risks spending its meagre resources on trying to enforce the ban—in all probability, quite ineffectively...Palau is well advised to develop alternative revenue streams through tourism investments before implementing blanket bans on fishing in its commercial zone and risking plunging the nation into a financial hole’

For too long have Pacific Islands states suffered at the mercy of rich distant waters fishing nations who for decades have systematically plundered their natural oceanic resources offering in return a pittance, which has been accepted without even a whimper by Pacific leaders. Pacific islanders have been short-changed since times immemorial. In history, there are stories galore of how the entire islands and sprawling tracts of what now consists of valuable real estate changed hands between natives and foreigners in exchange for bottles of liquor, blankets and even iron nails. Much of such exchanges also took place on religious grounds. In all such transactions, islanders received the short end of the deal. Unfortunately, despite political independence, being governed by democratic systems for the most part and being part of the modern world with many mechanisms to ensure equity in human endeavours in place today, the Pacific Islands are still caught up in a mediaeval time warp. In a place where rich nations and multinational businesses continue to shortchange them for their resources in exchange for mere sops-—apparently satisfying the powers that be. This happens in almost every case where the exploitation of any natural resource is involved—whether it be fishing, logging, mineral mining or other such resource extraction that belong to the people of the Pacific islands. One would assume that the self governing islands states would now be compensated duly for such exploitation because of their own who are in charge of decision-making. But that is far from the truth. And the reasons vary from ignorance and the foolishness to be led astray by powerful foreign forces to sheer incompetence and downright corruption. One of such exploitation that has been occurring for decades and about which little has been done not just to the detriment of the Pacific islanders alone but to the world at large is live oceanic resources. It has been known for decades that foreign countries, mega fishing companies and fly-by-night operators have been plundering the fish stocks in the exclusive economic zones of islands nations with impunity. There might be all sorts of agreements and accords in place that are supposed to report catch, limit it to sustainable levels and compensate the islands nations concerned correctly and fairly. But it is clear that this rarely happens. The poorly resourced islands nations have neither the financial muscle nor the infrastructural to enforce their writ, which in some cases doesn’t even exist. For Pacific Islands peoples, therefore, getting short-changed is the norm rather than the exception. Every once in a while, the media in the islands breaks stories about suspect arrangements that islands governments through their fisheries ministries and senior officials get into with distant waters fishing nations and large multinational fishing organisations. In recent months, the media in the Cook Islands has been rife with stories casting aspersions on the country’s fishing administration and fishing companies in China. Whichever way one looks at it, the dice is loaded against Pacific Islanders getting fair and equitable proceeds from their fisheries resources: their small, under resourced economies, poor infrastructure and policing capabilities, their own corrupt politicians and officials and bureaucratic incompetence and bungling ensure that everyone else except the Pacific Islanders themselves profit from the riches in their own exclusive economic zones. This is to say nothing of the rampant overfishing that has systematically been taking place around the region despite several counter measures being in place, including treaties, agreements and even physical policing mechanisms. Little wonder that fish stocks are beginning to dry up even in the once teeming Pacific. In some places, the impact of overfishing has been so bad that coastal fisheries have also been affected, impacting on the food security of coastal communities in the islands. It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that last month Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau proposed banning all commercial fishing in the Pacific nation’s waters. President Remengesau said his nation of 300 islands, with a population of about 21,000, generated negligible revenue from foreign fishing vessels plying its waters. Despite having an exclusive economic zone that sprawls across 630,000 square kilometres, the country nets just US$5 million in revenue. Countries like Kiribati, with a much bigger exclusive zone and the Solomon Islands despite being in the midst of the richest oceanic zone for tuna don’t fare much better. Their revenues are not much higher considering that authorities put the annual commercial value of tuna fished in the Pacific at US$4 billion. This is not to speak of any other commercial catch that the long-liners net by the very nature of their operations. President Remengesau couldn’t have said it better when he proposed a ban last month: “Revenue received from commercial fishing licences and taxes from commercial fishing is a drop in the bucket compared to the profits made by large fishing companies.” The president believes that investment in adventure, sport and ecotourism and its promotion will net far more revenue than the US$5 million that foreign fishing activities bring the tiny island state. He plans to create one of the world’s largest marine reserves, covering an area roughly the size of France.

Though far from fair and certainly not equitable, that small amount is vital to the country’s finances. An immediate ban will rob the exchequer of that amount straight away. But at the same time, illegal fishing might well continue especially since Palau does not have the resources to police the vast swathes of its commercial waters. Imposing a ban is one thing. Enforcing it is quite another. As well as losing revenue by banning fishing in its exclusive zone, it risks spending its meagre resources on trying to enforce the ban—in all probability, quite ineffectively. Rather than put the cart before the horse, Palau is well advised to develop alternative revenue streams through tourism investments before implementing blanket bans on fishing in its commercial zone and risking plunging the nation into a financial hole. Palau’s stand raises an important point. In fact, all islands nations must take a hard look at how they are being short-changed and place priority on negotiating better deals on fishing, while at the same time implementing stricter enforceable conditions on the big players. Meanwhile, they must also develop alternative eco-friendly revenue streams like the president’s idea of sport, nature and adventure tourism in the same waters.

(source: Islands Business April 2013)