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Palau Moves to Protect Diminishing Fish Stocks in Face of Global Inaction

Fish seen at a dive site in Palau. (Photo: Klaus Stiefel / Flickr)

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Palau, a small island nation located in Micronesia, may take a bold step in the fight against wild fish depletion and the destruction of marine biodiversity. On February 4, 2014, President Tommy Remengesau announced his government’s plan to forbid commercial fishing in his nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In his address at the United Nations, Remengesau explained that he would work to ban commercial fishing in his nation’s waters until “the international community can agree on . . . programs to reverse the devastation to our oceans and seas.”

While the 250 islands that comprise Palau are home to only 20,000 inhabitants, the moratorium would have no small impact. The nation’s EEZ consists of 232,000 square miles of prime fishing waters – rich with yellowfin and bigeye tuna – that are prized by Japanese and Taiwanese fishing vessels. If President Remengesau’s plan meets the approval of the country’s National Congress, the moratorium would contribute greatly to the global campaign to prevent the mass extinction of aquatic animals, and would start a necessary dialogue on how to mend the world’s destructive and violent commercial fishing practices.

Ecological Catastrophe and Human Slavery: The Cost of Cheap, Abundant Seafood

Nowadays, a Western consumer can readily find cheap seafood virtually anywhere. In the United States, no matter how landlocked and small a community may be, there’s a good chance it has access to an affordable sushi restaurant. In the world of globalized food production, people have grown addicted to fish imports. The demand for these imports, however, prognosticates a future where once-common fish species have been driven to extinction. In 2011, the average annual consumption of fish rose to a record high of 37 pounds per person, four times as much as people consumed in 1950. Fishing enterprises overexploit an estimated 85 percent of fish stocks – meaning that capture rates are far outpacing breeding rates.

The current state of commercial fishing is largely characterized by myopic profit goals and brutality, exercised against both wildlife and human workers. In industry-speak, the phrase “bycatch” is the euphemistic term that describes all the non-salable (and often endangered) wildlife captured in a haul. This collateral damage is dumped back out to sea, either dead or dying. Shrimp-trawlers dump up to 90 percent of their catch overboard. Animals that fall victim to the industry’s indiscriminate fishing methods include dolphins, sea turtles, whales and sharks. Annually, up to 320,000 seabirds perish in industrial fishing lines, threatening albatrosses and shearwaters with extinction.

Cheap seafood production has also led to human rights abuse. In a shocking investigative report released on June 10, The Guardian revealed that Thai fishmeal vessels use forced labor from Burmese and Cambodian migrants. The report found that Thailand’s Charoen Pokhand (CP) Foods – the world’s largest shrimp farmer – is guilty of using slave-caught fishmeal to feed the shrimp it raises for global consumption. Lured by Thai brokers offering employment, migrants end up being sold to boat captains. Once out to sea, migrants are forced to work up to 22-hour shifts without pay and with few rations. Captains reportedly use extreme violence to keep laborers in line and order execution-style killings to discourage resistance. This violence is a vital link in the chain that carries CP’s cheap shrimp to Western retailers, including Walmart, Costco and Tesco.

In the fishing industry’s mad rush to fulfill global seafood demand at low prices, it has developed practices that are neither sustainable nor humane. They pose great risks to the future wellbeing of our oceans and generate violence toward vulnerable migrants. If this is the cost of cheap seafood, is it worth it?

Indigenous Solutions: A Balance Between People and Nature

Palau’s potential ban on commercial fishing is much more than a symbolic gesture. The move would be a sacrifice. In 2013, fees from fishing licenses sold to foreign enterprises accounted for seven percent of Palau’s annual government budget. The law’s implementation would cause an immediate economic backlash, depriving the country of one of its chief sources of revenue.

But the significance of the proposed rule extends beyond immediate economic concerns and takes a wise look at the future of Palau’s fish stocks. In his address at the UN, President Remengesau invoked his nation’s indigenous traditions when discussing the ravages of contemporary commercial fishing and his proposed ban in Palau’s EEZ:

Local chiefs did not know the science of their environment, but they lived in harmony with their surroundings. They understood that the people’s health and prosperity rose and fell with the ocean’s tides. When resources became scarce, they declared a “Bul” – what we might today refer to as a moratorium. Reefs would be deemed off limits during spawning and feeding periods so that the ecosystem could replenish itself and fish stocks would remain abundant. Certain areas, like Ngirukuwid, were given permanent protection because of their important biodiversity. The goal was not conservation for its own sake, but to restore the balance between people and nature. The best science now confirms that our approach to managing the oceans is sound.

It is unlikely that commercial fishing enterprises that profit from the destruction of marine ecosystems will recognize the need for a Bul – at least not until the world’s fish stocks are completely destroyed. However, with conscientious voices reaffirming the shared fate of earth’s ecological wellbeing and the future of humanity, hopefully others will recognize that the wholesale destruction of the oceans and human slavery are not worth a $3 bag of shrimp.

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