September 25, 2009

Palau To Establish Shark Sanctuary

The Pacific Republic of Palau is banning all commercial shark fishing in its waters in an effort to create the world's first "shark sanctuary", BBC News reported.

President Johnson Toribiong announced the sanctuary during Friday's session of the UN General Assembly.

Many conservationists are calling it a "game-changing" move, as half of the world's oceanic sharks at risk of extinction. As a result, some 230,000 sq miles of ocean, an area about the size of France, will be under protection from shark hunting.

Some 100 million sharks are killed each year around the world, mostly from shark finning, the practice of removing the fins at sea. Shark fins are bought internationally for shark fin soup, a delicacy in many Asian countries.

Toribiong is calling for a global ban on shark finning, as well as an end to bottom trawling, a fishing method that can destroy valuable seafloor ecosystems such as coral reefs.

Toribiong said sharks are being slaughtered and are perhaps at the brink of extinction unless positive action is taken to protect them.

He told BBC News from UN headquarters in New York that their physical beauty and strength reflects the health of the oceans.

Catch limits and restrictions on shark finning have been implemented in a number of developed nations.

Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group, said Palau has recognized how important sharks are to healthy marine environments and they've decided to do what no other nation has done and declare their entire Exclusive Economic Zone a shark sanctuary.

"They are leading the world in shark conservation," he said.

Some 21 percent of shark species around the world whose extinction risk has been assessed fall into the "threatened" categories, and 18 percent are "near threatened". There is currently not enough data to decide another 35 percent of species.

However, the threatened list is filled with over half of the species that spend most of their time in the upper layers of the ocean, exposed to fishing.

But Palau has just one patrol boat capable of monitoring its waters, which will be an issue for enforcing the ban.

A recent aerial survey found 70 fishing vessels in the area, most of them illegal.

But there are other ways of tackling the illegal trade, according to Carl-Gustaf Lundin, who heads the marine program at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.

He said the U.S. has been sharing lists of illegal vessels with established fishing companies, so that they can report on their dishonest or non-decent peers. They are also exploring what options there are for monitoring remotely at low cost.

Palau has in recent years regularly sided with pro-hunting countries such as Japan in regards to organizations such as the International Whaling Commission and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Yet before going to New York for the UN General Assembly, Toribiong told BBC News he'd planned to "state to the world that Palau will revisit its current position" on whaling.

He said there would now be a bilateral meeting, due to the recent change of government in Japan, and because of the two countries' "close relationship".

"My position is to reconsider our current position in light of the most recent scientific data to ensure that the current position that Palau takes will not lead to the depletion and extinction of whales," he said.

However, the president said he was sure that the sanctuary is backed by science, as sharks are threatened as a group of species, and sanctuaries can help.

"Not all nations consider shark fins as delicacies, and we feel that the need to protect the sharks outweighs the need to enjoy a bowl of soup," said Toribiong.

The president also said he would encourage other world leaders to follow suit on such bans.