Two weeks following their release, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has issued a statement that the 28 Chinese poachers apprehended at Helen Reef last month are barred from returning to Palau, and will face prosecution if they attempt to repeat the crime.

The fishermen, who poached 500 pounds of sea cucumber from the protected area, were escorted out of Palau’s waters on December 31 aboard their vessel, the Qiong Sanya Yu, without being charged. The MOJ says that the decision to forego charges was due to the risk of exposure to COVID-19, as well as the “costly and time-consuming” burden of housing, feeding, and getting translators and legal representation for the 28 poachers, all of which would have “overwhelmed the court and jail system”.

“Each case must be handled on an individual basis, and the timing of this intrusion made the safety of the Palauan people more important than criminal prosecution,” the MOJ press release says.

The MOJ has said that prosecution of the poachers would have put law enforcement officers, medical staff, and judiciary system personnel at risk of COVID infection, from the fishermen themselves and from potentially-contaminated items on board the ship.

A settlement which was offered in place of charges concluded that fishing tackle and five of the six tender boats brought with the larger fishing vessel would be seized by the Palau Government, along with $20 thousand in US currency which had allegedly been offered as a bribe to the PAN Rangers who had spotted the vessel at Helen Reef.

The Qiong Sanya Yu was escorted out of the Western Passage by patrol speedboats of the Marine Law Division, and left somewhere in the waters between the Philippines and Taiwan.

The MOJ stressed that, despite its decision to release the poachers without charging them, Palau must be wary of the risk posed by Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

“It was not the Republic’s intention to send the message that such activities are acceptable here,” the press release said.

Victor Remengesau, Director of the Bureau of Maritime Security & Fish and Wildlife Protection added that poachers caught in Palau will be “leaving with far less than what they came with”.

The pandemic has affected Palau’s maritime security in other ways as well. Director Remengesau said that Palau’s patrol ship the Remeliik II will be conducting patrols when it can, but will probably not be conducting boardings in the near future, and may rely on aerial surveillance to report illegal entry and activities of foreign ships. Also, an Air Force surveillance program, Operation Sea Dragon, which was originally scheduled to launch this month to help patrol Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone, has experienced setbacks due to spikes in COVID cases in Guam.

The US, which collaborated with Palau Marine Law to help locate and intercept the Chinese vessel by dispatching the US Coast Guard Cutter Myrtle Hazard out of Guam and an HC-130 Hercules search plane out of Hawaii, has seized the opportunity to highlight “irresponsible” Chinese maritime practices in the region. A statement issued by US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland on the matter called on the international community to “stand together for the rule of law and insist on better environmental stewardship by Beijing”.

A 2020 report from the US Senate on military strategy in the Indo-Pacific identified China as “by far the biggest challenge in the region”. The report details plans for further defense exercises with allies in the region to counter rising Chinese influence, such as the Pacific Pathways military exercises, a training deployment with partners in the Pacific, among which Palau is counted. 

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