The economic devastation left behind by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that impacted tourism could claim an unlikely victim, an environmental policy that seeks to protect 80% of Palau’s Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) from extractive and exploitive fishery.

Seeking other sources of revenue to cover government fiscal shortfall after the country lost over 35% of its annual income from tourism, the House of Delegates introduced a proposal to lift the fishing ban on Palau’s marine sanctuary for five (5) years, permitting long-line and purse seine fishing activities within what is now a no-take zone of the PNMS.

“Olbiil Era Kelulau finds that the COVId-19 global pandemic continues to have an unprecedented impact on our economy.  As such, it is necessary to consider short-term measures for economic recovery,” states the proposed bill findings.  Adding,  “Short-term measures are not meant to be lasting solutions but are to serve as temporary sources of revenue as we recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.”

President Surangel Whipps doesn’t see the House of Delegates’ proposal as negative, rather he said, “OEK having this discussion now is in line with Our Oceans. Let’s look at the policy we made, what is good, what is deficient and how do we make it better.”

OEK may want to open it all up but Whipps said there may be other ways to improve it to better benefit Palauans.

Reducing the size of the no-fishing zone, imposing greater scrutiny on those licensed to fish in the allowed area, were raised as potential actions to “improve management”.

“One way to look at it, you plant fruits on your farm and now it’s ripe, do you let them spoil or have someone else take it, or do you take it yourself. If you don’t harvest it, someone else will,” President Whipps said of fishing prohibition within 80% of the PNMS.

“Two million each year going into the government’s treasury can cover a lot of the shortfalls in the government that we are talking about today,” said Minister Steven Victor of the Ministry of Fisheries, Agriculture, and Environment (MAFE) of the potential losses Palau faces with current closure of the PNMS to fishing. 

Countering, Ann Singeo, a community advocate pushing against the proposal said  “COVID-19 is just temporary. COVID-19 is a short-term crisis but what you are changing is huge.  Using this very small issue of COVID-19 to change a huge monumental Palauan legacy is a very short-sighted leadership.”

“Palau is branded as pristine paradise, a brand we have been selling for some time.  We have been differentiating ourselves and products as pristine and unique.  And now we are going against the brand and calling back this polluting industry?  Just go to Malakal and see those abandoned ships that are leaking oil into our pristine waters.  The captains and owners are long gone. Is this worth 1.8 million?” expressed an irate tour company owner of what he said was a very bad decision for Palau to entertain.

“The leadership think we can have high-quality tourism and fishing industry together.  That’s like building your house, building a school next to it, and building a brothel next to both. They don’t go together,” added another who didn’t want their identity known.

“This is our chance to build back better.  COVID-19 gave us a chance to restart our tourism industry the right way and aim for high-value customers. The PNMS is one of our selling points.  As the study from USA Graduate School showed, visitors will pay more to have PNMS in place. Let’s not be hasty and as President Whipps said before in his press conference, let’s tighten our belts and get through this together.” Voiced a local business person.

“I watched young students tear up with joy when a very large group of spinner dolphins came so close to the boat that you could almost touch them,” recounted a young man of a summer program with students. “That experience opened their eyes and made them see their country and the world differently.  Is this the legacy we want to destroy by bringing back these indiscriminate fishing companies?  For 2 million dollars, are we willing to take away from our children and grandchildren their inheritance?”  questioned a teacher who said that most of the students have never seen so many dolphins this close.

Both sides of the argument said to stick to facts and not feelings to make informed decisions.  (By: L.N. Reklai)

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