To help Palau detect activities such as illegal fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the United States Department of Defense is basing an Air Force surveillance system in Palau International Airport.
The Sea Dragon aerial surveillance program, which is capable of monitoring over 35,000 square kilometers an hour, is expected to be launched in January 2021.
The program, which comes a year after the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS) went into effect, is expected to be able to identify illegal fishing vessels in the 475,077-square-kilometer no-take zone, as well as in the rest of Palau’s EEZ.
Using a Synthetic-Aperture Radar payload mounted to a Cessna 337 “Skymaster” aircraft, along with high-res camera technology, the system is designed to produce digital images of vessels which can be used to prosecute those ships which are breaking Palau’s maritime laws.
The aircraft, which will take off from Airai, will be operated by a pilot, copilot, and maintenance person, who will be working in tandem with personnel from the Division of Marine Law Enforcement.
Marine Law, which currently uses data from the Automated Identification System (AIS) and the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) from the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency to identify vessels which may be poaching, has found that, even with the ability to flag these ships, catching them proves a challenge, especially given the vast size of Palau’s EEZ and its limited patrol boats. The Ministry of Justice has said that it hopes this new system will provide the hard evidence to indict ships guilty of poaching.
President Remengesau has previously expressed the need to heighten Palau’s capacity to monitor the protected areas and enforce the no-take laws, which has thus far been seen as one of the shortfalls of the PNMS.
During the visit of US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in August, the President allegedly brought up this concern to the Secretary, in hopes that a greater US military presence would help to discourage illegal activities such as poaching and smuggling in the marine sanctuary.
The implementation of the Sea Dragon system will follow in the wake of the arrival of the Remeliik 2 patrol ship from Australia, which arrived in Palau this week. The Remeliik 2 joins the patrol ship Kedam, which was donated to Marine Law by the Nippon Foundation in 2018, although it has since experienced operational difficulties.
The Sea Dragon system, based in Palau, is also expected to provide maritime surveillance for Yap State in the Federated States of Micronesia.

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