A proposal to lift the ban on the export of reef fish and other marine products has been introduced in the Senate, a year before the general election. The proposal comes amid pressure on politicians to amend the law, which was passed in 2020 to protect Palau’s reef fish populations.

“This is a request we hear a lot when we meet Palauans outside of Palau, to lift the export ban on reef fish,” said a senator who asked not to be identified.  With over 2,000 Palauan voters overseas, it would be akin to political suicide to be identified as a politician who does not support the lifting of the export ban. 

Nearly every politician, whether state or national elected leader, is expected to bring coolers of fish and seafood products from Palau when traveling to visit constituents outside of Palau.  “Every meeting, fundraising or celebration activity outside of Palau, the Palauan communities would request fish from Palau, and it is common for people running for political offices to bring them,” shared a member of the Palauan community overseas, who said this has been going on for decades.

Prior to the enactment of RPPL 10-54 in 2020, politicians campaigning to Guam, Saipan, and even the US mainland brought coolers of reef fish from Palau to their constituents.  After the ban, only pelagic fish such as yellowfin tuna can be exported out of Palau, which is not the preferred fish by Palauans overseas.

Not all exports are politically motivated.  With the Palauan diaspora spread over the United States and its territories, bringing a taste of home to families overseas by bringing reef fish is common practice for Palauans visiting families.

“My kids in college ask me for fish from home.  They miss home and want a taste of beldakl  el ngikel or klengoes ra sar just once,” said Jim (not his real name), who believes the law is too strict and should allow for limited export.

Marine Resource report of reef fish export in 2019, before the export ban was enacted, showed that 230,000 pounds of reef fish were exported out of Palau, with only 17,000 pounds reported for “commercial export,” while the 200,000 plus pounds were for “personal consumption.” 

The export ban came about as a result of a study conducted by Palau International Coral Reef Center in 2017 and 2019. Over 80% of the 94 sites surveyed were overexploited, with the spawning potential of certain species of fish below 20%.

The study also showed that there was hope and that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are contributing to the recovery of the fish populations.

The export ban was expected to further assist with the recovery of reef fish populations and healthier reef ecosystems.

However, the current proposed bill cites a 2021 study that shows some recovery in reef fish populations in Palau.

“Therefore, the Olbiil Era Kelulau now finds that based on the studies, the recovering reef fish population is indicative of sustainability.  It is now time to resume and allow Palauans to be able to support their families on sale from reef fishes and allow Palauans living abroad to have a taste of home,” states Senate Bill 11-89.

Still, the study concludes that “reef fish biomass is still generally low when compared to local MPAs and theoretical estimates of productivity and that continued monitoring and better fisheries management are needed.”

The bill is in the Senate Committee on Tourism, Environment & Maritime Development, chaired by Senator Umiich Sengebau.  Senator Sengebau said the bill was assigned to his committee, and it is his responsibility to address the bill. Senator Sengebau’s Committee is soliciting public comments on the bill and plans to hold a public hearing on it.

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