Who is Palau’s marine sanctuary really for?

Is Palau's marine reserve as good as it sounds – or a route to luxury tourism?

Two years ago, the tiny Pacific nation of Palau received international praise for creating one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world.

But enforcing what is, in effect, a vast no-fishing zone the size of California is throwing up considerable challenges.

Since its creation, at least 22 crews of illegal fishing vessels have been apprehended in the conservation area and ‘extradited’ to international waters. The Palauan authorities usually confiscate the boats’ high-value assets, with the crews being dispatched on their most sea-worthy vessel.
In some cases the boats are burned – creating spectacular images that are readily consumed by the international media.

But there is a moral predicament behind these arrests. ‘Many of the crew are trafficked as slaves,’ a local police officer explains. ‘They are picked up in the Philippines or Indonesia and told they’re on a “legal” vessel… We hope they make it home. But [they are often sent back on] old boats. Who knows?’

Local and international experts have also questioned the scientific rationale behind the conservation area. Tuna, for example, which is common to Palau’s waters, are highly migratory so enclosure won’t increase stocks if consumption continues to increase and spawning grounds are not protected.

Some see the sanctuary as part of a plan to benefit the super-rich, not the coral reefs. It’s integral to a wider vision to re-brand Palau’s string of pristine islands as a luxury tourist destination. A law proposed earlier this year would mean only five-star hotels will get planning approval in future.
Despite soundings to reduce tourist numbers (‘quality over quantity’, as the President of Palau put it) the marine conservation goes hand-in-hand with a $30 million expansion of the airport. In order to make the expansion feasible, it has been suggested that international visitors would need to triple from today’s 146,000 per year.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently increased its target for marine protection areas from 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the world’s oceans. But protecting Palau’s waters involves addressing the causes of illegal fishing – poverty and slave trafficking – and encouraging sustainable tourism.