Upcoming elections and the economic impact of COVID-19 have put higher pressure on the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS) to pay off in creating more sustainable pelagic fishing sources for Palau. An update on the PNMS published by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC), now the Administrator for the no-take zone, seeks to outline the steps PICRC is taking to track pelagic movement into the fishing zone, and prepare Palauans to catch them.
“The ultimate direct benefit that the PNMS strives to deliver is to create a bigger fish market for Palau, by Palauans,” the report states.
Research by PICRC is aimed at building a better understanding of the movement of fish in the Sanctuary and the fishing zone, to track the “spillover effect”, movement of pelagic species like tuna from the reserve into fishing zones, which proponents of the PNMS expect will boost Palau’s food security.
Other steps highlighted by the report which have been taken to set groundwork for a stronger domestic fish market include government efforts to build the skills, equipment, and infrastructure needed for Palauan pelagic fishermen.
Researchers at PICRC have used tuna-tagging and satellite tracking technology, as well as FAD buoys, to better understand tuna movement and where tuna can most easily be caught by local fishermen. The technology is also being used to determine if the Sanctuary is an important habitat and breeding-grounds for tuna, as well as to determine their temperature and depth preferences, and their migratory patterns.
Fisheries biologist Alexander Filous has been managing these projects to pinpoint places around the islands which are both accessible to small-scale fishers and likely to attract large groups of tuna. His research has identified places deep enough to draw large groups of juvenile yellowfin tuna, and close enough to land to be fuel-efficient to small-scale fishers, such as locations off of Peleliu and Ngardmau. He pointed out that, although fish found around FADs in these locations, which are generally smaller than 60 cm, may not be exportable, they are good for selling in the domestic market and promoting food security.
One of the main arguments of critics of the PNMS has been that, so far, the Sanctuary has failed to protect the reef fish which it was designed to protect. With fewer pelagic fish being sold in the local market, which were once caught by foreign fishermen with the equipment needed to catch them, many local fishermen have turned instead to reef fish, endangering the supply.
However, the report highlights steps which the government has taken to train and equip locals for pelagic fishing, as well as to set prices which favors it.
The report states, for instance, that the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism (MNRET), with the support of PICRC, has agreed with Belau Offshore Fishers Incorporated (BOFI) to develop a domestic market for tuna and other pelagic species by establishing prices which are fair to consumers while beneficial to local fishermen.
The report also points out that MNRET has been making effort to train locals in proper pelagic handling methods, the management of FADs, and understanding market chains for selling pelagic fish. As part of this capacity-building, several Palauan fishermen were brought to Japan and Indonesia to receive on-sight training for how big pelagic-fishing operations run.
In addition, the report points out that the MNRET has invested in equipment and infrastructure needed for the development of a domestic pelagic-fish market, such as the purchase of a 20-foot cold storage container and a pole-and-line fishing vessel provided by Japan which is expected to be available by 2021, as well as the design of a central fish marketplace which is expected to be constructed soon.
PICRC CEO Dr. YimnangGolbuu, who played a huge role in compiling the report, expressed the hope that the research being done by PICRC and work being done by the government in support of the PNMS could result in the understanding and the means needed to establish sustainable domestic fisheries, with support from the Palauan community.
“We still have yet to realize the full benefits of the PNMS, including the establishment of the domestic fishery and resulting positive impacts on food security and livelihoods,” the report states. “The benefits from the PNMS must be felt by the people of Palau.”