[Editor's note: The following post is written by Noah Idechong, a leader in marine fisheries conservation, recognized by the international community for his work in Palau combining traditional and modern knowledge to manage Palau's rich marine resources. In 1994 he co-founded the Palau Conservation Society (PCS) and was its Executive Director from 1995 to 2000. In 1995, he was one of six global recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in Palau, and in 2000, he was recognized by TIME Magazine as one of the Heroes for the Planet for his contribution to marine conservation. Currently, Noah Idechong serves as the Speaker in the Republic of Palau's House of Delegates.]
Palauans have always lived with and depended on the ocean and its many inhabitants for generations. Because of our close affinity to these resources, Palauans have a deep respect for the ocean and its inhabitants.
Even though Palauans fear the shark for its potential to attack fishermen, we also respect the shark. It stands as a symbol for the protector, one of the attributes that is expected of a Palauan leader.
As top predators, sharks control populations of the next fish down in the food chain and help keep up populations of smaller fish — without sharks the whole system changes.
Yet these protectors are now dependent on us to save and protect them. Palauan leaders saw that this most feared ocean animal was being hunted by foreign fishing fleets in the 1980s and the 90s for their fins.
In 2003, Palau put a ban on shark finning. But even while the ban was in effect, foreign fishing vessels continued to be caught and fined for illegally fishing for sharks.
[Watch a video of Noah talking about what makes Palau – and its conservation efforts – special.]
Palau, although a small island nation with limited capacity to protect the vast ocean, finally declared all of Palau’s waters as a shark sanctuary in 2009. The declaration brought attention to the need for drastic action to protect these species as well as international awareness for the need to help small island nations protect their waters from illegal foreign fishing.
Palauans have done their part to protect the ocean and its inhabitants—for example, we’re one of five governments spearheading the Micronesia Challenge, a region-wide initiative to protect our lands and waters for future generations. But no matter how many laws Palauans enact or how many conservation and protection measures we put in place, unless we can secure our border from unauthorized foreign fishing fleets, our efforts are just slowing down a problem that will continue to deplete the ocean.
We need to protect the protector of the ocean. Its fate depends on all of us to raise awareness and to stop illegal fishing in small island nations, which may provide the last safe havens for sharks.
[Image: Aerial view of Kmekumer, Rock Islands, Republic of Palau, Palau, Asia Pacific. Image source: Jez O'Hare]