Following the implementation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS) at the beginning of this year, one of the most often cited negative short-term consequences of the marine conservation area has been an unintentional stress on reef fish. However, a new study examines ways in which food advertising can shift fish consumption back towards pelagics, particularly for tourists.
The study, co-authored by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) in collaboration with scientists from Stanford University Center for Ocean Solutions and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, recognizes that a reduction in harvesting potential of pelagic fish, which comes with the transition from foreign industrial fishing fleets to domestic small-scale fleets, will result in a rise in prices for pelagic fish. Generally, it has been assumed that the rise in prices of pelagic fish in comparison to the much cheaper reef fish will result in consumer preference of reef fish. However, the study demonstrates that this is not always true.
According to the report, tourist food consumption behavior is “an important driver of food systems, especially in developing nations”. In the past, tuna, mahi-mahi and wahoo made up a huge percentage of the diets of tourists in Palau. With the reduction in large-scale fishing fleets which coincided with the implementation of the PNMS, many critics expected this to change. However, the study, which surveyed over 400 tourists in Palau, showed that many were willing to pay over $15 more for a pelagic fish marketed as a “local and sustainable species”, caught by local fishermen, than for reef fish. This was particularly true for the middle-to-high income tourists, which are generally considered the target customers for tourism industries in Palau.
The study, which gauged tourist preferences through tablet-based menus, demonstrated that many tourists with higher incomes are willing to pay extra for a fish they know is “local and sustainable”, suggesting that restaurants could use this marketing strategy to sell pelagic species to tourists, even in light of the rising prices.
However, the report also recognizes that “whether a domestic local fishery is able to supply enough fish at this price needs to be investigated”. Both the outgoing and the incoming National Governments have stressed that the development of local fisheries should be one of Palau’s top priorities. So far, the Government has begun to allocate funding towards training and equipping Palauan fishers for more sustainable pelagic fishing.

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