The move announced by Palau's President Thomas Remengesau Jr last month, seeks to preserve Palau's economic and environmental future, but deals a huge blow to commercial tuna fisheries, and could threaten Palau's aid relationship with the US.
Matt Rand is the Director of the Global Oceans Legacy at Pew Charitable Trust, and is helping Remengesau to achieve his vision.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Matt Rand, Director, Global Oceans Legacy, Pew Charitable Trust
RAND: We are working closely with the President on his efforts to create a marine sanctuary. This was his vision and we've said that we'd be happy to help him support that vision. I think he's looking at the big picture for his country, he's looking at where the economic resources really are, and for Palau the tourism economy is much more significant than the fisheries economy. So he's made a clear decision to protect his reefs in the form of the tourism, and in order to do that he's decided to create a marine sanctuary. How much impact that will have ultimately on the Pacific tuna fishery I think is still yet to be determined.
EWART: But also Palau's relationship with the United States, is there a danger that the President here could drive something of an economic rift between Palau and big brother across the water?
RAND: I would be surprised if that was the case. I think Palau significance and importance for the United States goes well beyond fisheries. Palau has been a protectorate of the United States for quite some time and there's very close relationships there for multiple reasons. I think fisheries probably plays a much less significant role than some of the other issues.
EWART: Therefore do you see this being a model that other of the small Pacific nations might follow, particularly in light of the report of course from the inter-governmental panel on climate change, which is suggesting that of course continuing threats to fish stocks, something we're constantly talking about, but the situation doesn't appear to be improving any?
RAND: Well it's a very good question, I mean there's been recent research that indicates fully protected marine reserves are six times more resilient to climate change. So you may see other Pacific Island leaders looking at the model that Palau is trying to create, that's certainly a possibility. There are quite a bit of differences in each of the different island countries out there, and some of them have more ability to driving tourism than others. In the case of Palau it's about 50 per cent of their economy is tourism, and less than five per cent is fisheries. So they're in a little bit of a unique situation when you compare them to other Pacific Island nations. But there certainly are others out there that may start to look at this and look at the potential impacts on climate change and start to think that this makes more sense.
EWART: How though does the commercial fishing industry deal with this situation? Perhaps if Palau goes down this road and that's it, you would assume that a giant thing like the commercial fishing industry would cope one way or another, but if other countries follow suit, won't it mean a complete reconstruction as it were of the tuna fishing industry?
RAND: I think that's a very, very long way off. When you look at the grand scheme of things in the Pacific Palau plays a very small role in the larger tuna fishery in the Pacific region. So I don't think that we're really talking about any sort of major reconstruction. In fact I think what Palau is doing may enable healthier tuna populations throughout the Pacific. They'll have an area where tuna can breed and grow so that the other nations may be able to take advantage of healthier fish. And they're part of a treaty agreement with other Pacific Island nations that divide up the number of days that can be fished within each of the country zones. And those days could just quite possibly be moved over to the other countries, so that the other countries actually have more ability to fish. So I don't think this threatens the tuna fishery in the Pacific in any major way at this point.