January 1 marked the beginning of the biggest undertaking Palau has ever done as a Republic, the full implementation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PMNS), closing off 80% of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or about 500,000 square kilometers of ocean to any type of extractive activity, no fishing, no mining, no removal of any living and non-living thing within an area nearly the size of the State of Texas.

With closure comes additional tasks nearly of the same magnitude.  One, patrolling the area size of the country of France, with two patrol boats. Two, manage the remaining 20% of the EEZ as domestic fishery zone which entails developing, creating, promoting and supporting domestic fishery industry, pushing for consumption of pelagic fish species by creating local market demand and coordinating mix of domestic and foreign fishery within the same 20% domestic  fishery zone.  Three, coordinate activities of all involved agencies such as Ministry of Justice’s Division of Marine Law Enforcement(DMLE), Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism’s Bureau of Marine Resource(BMR), Bureau of Tourism (BOT), and Palau International Coral Reef Center’s Research and Monitoring, in the implementation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act.

Despite daunting tasks, agencies responsible for its implementation are taking the challenges head on.  “Even though the law has been passed, the work is still on-going including continuing research and monitoring,” stated Dr. YimnangGolbuu, Executive Director of PICRC, an agency tasked as an administrating agency of the PNMS.

Dr. Golbuu said that the law clearly specifies responsibilities of different agencies under the PNMS such as Ministry of Justice’s responsibility over marine law enforcement and Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism over domestic fishery and PICRC’s responsibility for research, monitoring and coordination of various ministries involved.

Minister of MNRET UmiichSengebau said the work on domestic fishery has been going on during the transition period.  The amendment to the PNMS law which changed the placement of the domestic fishery zone as well as opened up exports for fishery within domestic fishing zone were some of the key changes in the domestic fishery policy.  These policy changes came about as result of research and study conducted on the viability of the domestic fishery within the PNMS by PICRC and Stanford University group.

In addition to law amendments, new types of fishing  techniques are being introduced to local fishermen to expand outside the reef such as the use of Fishing Aggregate Devices (FAD).  A new FAD manual has been released for the local fishermen according to Minister Sengebau.

“The food security component of PNMS is very important,” expressed Minister Sengebau.  A new association called Belau Offshore Fishing Association (BOFA) has recently been formed, according to Sengebau.  A cold storage facility will be constructed for the use of BOFA to buy fish from foreign fishing fleets before they ship out for export.  Fish bought and stored in this facility will be sold to restaurants for local consumption.

Minister Sengebau acknowledged the challenge of monitoring such vast area, saying that not only fishing vessels but also other ships pass through Palau waters.  He added that the challenge Palau faced is more from the unlicensed small fishing boats from Philippines and Indonesia into our waters.

Sengebau was optimistic that the addition of new patrol boat from Australia in June plus more resources through partner agencies, Palau will be able to meet the enforcement challenge.

Dr. Golbuureported that they are looking to hire a coordinator to be based at the DMLE Command Center for a closer coordination with MOJ and MNRET on the PNMS.

The DMLE Command Center at its new building in Malakal does contain equipment to monitor Palau’s EEZ but its technology still has gaps and limitations.  According to DMLE Chief Emerson Nobuo, the satellite data they receive which shows all the boats and ships passing through Palau’s EEZ have four (4) hours delay.  He emphasized the need to have more updated equipment in order to obtain real time report.And even if they do get real time report, it will take the patrol boat 4 hours to reach South West Island, another challenge.

The satellite images on the monitor shows all ships with Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) within Palau’s EEZs.  “The problem is that most ships that come to fish illegally in Palau waters do not have AIS, and some have better technology on their boats and can see when the patrol boat leaves the port,” noted Chief Nobuo of challenges they face with enforcement.

Chief Nobuo added that they are still working to upgrade and expand the operations of the command center to better monitor Palau’s EEZ.

Palau partners with Australia, Japan, US and other NGO’s to conduct surveillance and monitoring of Palau’s waters but this is not done on a daily basis.  In the meantime, the challenge of enforcement continues to depend on better technology and partnership with countries and NGOs.

This being the 3rd day of the closure, the implementing agencies have a whole new decade to fine tune the implementation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary.