A week after a Chinese vessel poaching off of Helen Reef was arrested by the Remeliik II and escorted to Koror, President Tommy Remengesau said that the detained fishing vessel is being searched for illegal cargo.

The Chinese vessel, along with its twenty-eight crew members, is currently being detained off of Marine Law Dock in Malakal, undergoing the mandatory fourteen-day quarantine. Once the search of the vessel is complete, President Remengesau says that the government will decide how to charge the poachers.

The President dismissed the notion that Palau should not have arrested and detained the poachers due to the risk of COVID transmission.

“Whether there’s COVID or not, it’s Palau’s responsibility to catch illegal vessels like this,” said Remengesau.

The Division of Marine Law Enforcement has previously said that it does not want the poachers to come ashore, and that it does not want them to stay any longer than necessary in Palau, due to the risk that they may be carrying COVID.

“At this time we don’t anticipate the need to test [the Chinese fishermen] before the fourteen days,” said Gaafar Uherbelau of the Ministry of Health (MOH). “All the precautionary measures are being implemented to make sure that we minimize unnecessary exposure to the potential threat.”

Nevertheless, Director Victor Remengesau of the Bureau of Maritime Security & Fish and Wildlife Protection agreed that the risk of COVID should not hinder law enforcement.

“We may care about COVID, but we can’t let people do what they want [regardless of the law],” Director Remengesau said.

The twenty-eight poachers aboard the Chinese vessel, which some sources have identified as the “Zhang”, had harvested an estimated 500 pounds of sea cucumber off of Helen Reef, a protected area in Hatohobei State. The vessel, which had no clearance to enter Palau’s territorial waters, is also guilty of unlawful entry.

Although no communication has yet been made between the governments of Palau and China regarding the arrests, the President said that the Chinese government will be notified of its citizens’ illegal entry and fishing.

The law enforcement officers searching the Chinese vessel will be wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) provided by the Belau National Hospital and Marine Law, Remengesau stressed.

The 19 crew members of the Remeliik II, who made the arrests and initially boarded the fishing vessel, are also currently undergoing their fourteen-day quarantine aboard the patrol boat, off of Marine Law Dock.

President Remengesau also said that the government is looking into allegations that the Chinese fishermen attempted to bribe the PAN Rangers in Helen Reef who initially discovered them, in order to keep them from alerting Marine Law.

The twenty-eight poachers were first discovered by the PAN Rangers on the morning of Monday, December 7. The Remeliik II intercepted and arrested the illegal vessel in the early hours of Thursday, December 10. Both the Remeliik II and the Chinese vessel returned to Koror the following Saturday. 

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