By declaring its entire exclusive economic zone a sanctuary for sharks, Palau has taken the global lead in counteracting the dramatic decline in shark populations and protecting biodiversity in its surrounding oceans. The exemplary stance against commercial exploitation of sharks and rays benefited other species too by ensuring a healthy ecosystem. The economic benefits of banning shark hunting are also demonstrable: the shark diving industry contributes US$1.2 million in salaries to local communities and generates US$1.5 million in taxes for the Palauan government annually. Palau was honoured with the Gold Future Policy Award in recognition of two outstanding marine policies, the Protected Areas Network Act, initiated in 2003, and the Shark Haven Act from 2009.
“Palau is so fragile and it is so beautiful that you just have to take the responsible action and minimise the risk that would destroy all of this for our children and future children”.
Thomas Remengesau, Jr. President of Palau
- Palau was the first country to address the global decline in shark populations by declaring a shark sanctuary across its entire exclusive economic zone of 629,000 square kilometres (an area the size of France).
- To protect sharks and the ecosystems they support, commercial shark and ray fishing has been outlawed, and no sharks are permitted on board boats; bycatch must be released alive.
- The Act takes a holistic and intergenerational approach which values future generations´ well-being and perceives sharks as prized residents of Palau.
An Act to establish a shark haven in the Republic of Palau’s territorial water, contiguous, and exclusive economic zone, and for related purposed, also referred to as the Shark Haven Act of 2009, available here (pp 4-7).
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention.
Palau’s Protected Area Network (PAN) Act
As an island state in the Pacific, Palau is culturally and economically dependent on the oceans, and the Shark Haven Act acknowledges the ecological interconnections between conservation of sharks and the health of the marine ecosystem.
Palau was the first country to address the global decline in shark populations by declaring its entire exclusive economic zone 629,000 square kilometres (area the size of France) a shark sanctuary. To protect sharks and the ecosystems they support, commercial shark fishing has been outlawed, and no sharks are permitted on board boats; bycatch must be released alive. Prosecution can result in two years imprisonment and a USD 50,000 fine.
There is evidence that closures and sanctuaries work for marine mammals with similar life histories, and these examples were used guidance in designating the shark sanctuary. Before the sanctuary was declared, the government generated income from selling licenses to commercial fishers for shark fishing, so it was a politically bold move to protect sharks, particularly for a developing country.
The profile of Palau has also been raised on the global stage at the United Nations headquarters and has called for a global moratorium on shark fishing. Enforcement capacity is limited but the government has signed Memorandums of Understanding with NGOs, such as Greenpeace, to help with enforcement. Hawaii, Guam, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Honduras and Northern Mariana have since declared shark sanctuaries.
Our “Best Policies” are those that meet the Future Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise the interconnected challenges we face today. The goal of principled policy work is to ensure that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are taken into account. It also helps to increase policy coherence between different sectors.
- The Act is designed to protect all species of sharks and rays, which are vulnerable marine species as a consequence of high fishing pressure, exacerbated by their slow growth and reproduction rates.
- Protecting sharks ensures a level of ecosystem integrity, as, without top predators, there is a cascade effect on species in other parts of the food web – these effects can be unpredictable, and can lead to a reduction in ecosystem complexity, loss of resilience against future shocks (such as climate change) and phase shifts to less productive states.
- Evidence has suggested that complete bans are the only effective measure to allow population recovery.
- The Act offers an intergenerational perspective that values future generations´ well-being, and recognises the benefit of a healthy shark population for Palauans long into the future.
- Local fishermen and tour operators are the primary beneficiaries of the act.
- It is more economically beneficial to keep the sharks alive then to allow them to be captured and killed. Each reef shark can contribute almost two million dollars to the economy of Palau within a sixteen year expected lifespan. If a fisherman kills a shark he might be able to get a one-time payment of a couple of hundreds of dollars for the fins.
- Tourism contributes to local economies, investment in sharks is a long term economic strategy.
- The precautionary approach is not mentioned explicitly in the legislation.
- A shark sanctuary may regulate illegal fishing in general, as 50% of global shark fisheries are linked to IUU
- Despite a large economic incentive for the Government of Palau, derived from the sale of licences to international shark long-lining companies, the decision to ban this activity was taken.
- The Act embodies the traditional culture and way of life in Palau to respect sharks, and in so doing, people are more likely to participate in its enforcement.
- Avenues exist for appeal and redress in the courts.
- In terms of implementation and enforcement, there is only one boat in Palau, but technical support is provided additionally by Australia.
- The Palauan government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to enable and support enforcement of the Act through surveillance of Exclusive Economic Zone.
- Communities’ rights to their own resources are protected.
- Palau unilaterally protected its environment, despite high demand for shark related products from other countries.
- Palau’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, accounting for 56% of its GDP. Shark dive tourism has increased in recent years, to 40 000 annual visitors, and is contributing to the local economy, although it would be difficult to establish a causal link between the enactment of the legislation and higher tourist numbers.
- Evidence from other sites that have completed closures of shark fisheries has shown long-term ecological benefits.
- The burden of enforcement against commercial and illegal fishers is shifted from local people to the government and NGOs.
- Local people now benefit as opposed to foreign fishing fleets who would buy-up licenses for shark fishing.
The scientific and conservation community has expressed alarm at the rate of global decline in shark species. A primary cause had been identified as direct fishing, in particular for the sharks’ highly valuable fins, as well as bycatch in other fisheries, as well as marine pollution, habitat destruction and climate change. Shark-finning involves harvesting sharks´ fins and discarding them back into the ocean often when they are still alive, which leads them to die of suffocation or get eaten by other predators.
Elasmobranchs (the classification which includes sharks, rays and skates) are extremely vulnerable to exploitation due to their long lives and low reproductive rate compared to other species of fish. There is extensive evidence, however, that sharks, as apex predators, are critical for maintaining a diverse ecosystem by regulating the variety and abundance of species lower down in the food chain.
In Palau, diminishing numbers of sharks had led to ecological consequences such as jellyfish blooms and coral reef degradation.
To establish the Republic of Palau as a world leader in preserving shark populations.
To strengthen the existing law banning shark-finning in Palau.
To create bilateral and multilateral agreements to establish and enforce strong anti-finning laws.
The Act sets out the prohibited acts within Palau’s territorial waters, contiguous zone and exclusive economic zone which includes catching, capturing and intentionally fishing for any shark or any part as such. The only exception to this is for Palauan citizens and boats that are wholly owned by Palauans, where they are permitted to land a maximum of one whole shark per calendar day, if it is caught secondary to other fishing activities and reported to the relevant authorities.
Reporting by Ministers of State, Justice, Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism on the status of anti-shark fishing laws takes place on a biannual basis.
The ocean ecosystem of Palau showed improvement and with the Palau Protected Areas Network, the biomass of both resource fishes and piscivorous fishes increased dramatically.
Shark diving is a major contributor to the economy of Palau, generating USD18 million per year and accounting for approximately 8 per cent of the gross domestic product of the country.
The conservation value of sharks for local communities and national economy through the diving industry and tourism taxes is higher than potential value of harvested sharks. Annually, shark diving has been responsible for the disbursement of US$1.2 million in salaries to the local community, and generated US$1.5 million in taxes for the government.
The international attention that has surrounded the declaration of the first shark sanctuary resulted in similar actions by Hawaii, Guam, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Honduras and Northern Mariana, as well as movements to improve shark protection internationally.
Transferability has already been demonstrated by a number of other countries following the example of Palau. The act has sparked a movement against commercial exploitation of sharks in national waters, with countries like Hawaii, Guam, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Honduras and Northern Mariana adopting similar measures.
Countries require effective surveillance and monitoring capacities in order to patrol the extent of their EEZ, and have adequate deterrents and court systems to prosecute illegal shark fishing in their waters.
Scientific American, ‘An interconnected environment and economy- Shark tourism in Palau.‘
Pew Trusts, ‘Shark Sanctuaries Around the World‘
Pew Trusts, ‘Recent Shark Sanctuaries and Other Protections‘
New York Times, ‘Pacific Islands Band Together on a Shark Sanctuary.’
Shark Savers, ‘Laws Protecting Sharks.’
Micronesia Speaks Up to Save Sharks
Sharks are rapidly disappearing from the world's oceans, primarily as a result of the demand for their fins, which are valued as a soup ingredient in some cultures. Each year, up to 73 million of these animals are killed by humans. However, advocates in the Pacific would like to put a stop to this activity.