Updated: Jul 26
Back in 2009, a tiny island nation made history by becoming the first place in the world to implement a "shark sanctuary" in their waters. Palau, home to just 20,000 inhabitants, designated the entire of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as a sanctuary for sharks; meaning that fishing sharks in Palauan waters became punishable by law. This was a remarkable and bold step on the part of the government and set the shark conservation bar very high for other nations. So, 13 years later, what impact has the shark sanctuary in Palau had on shark conservation? Is the sanctuary a success? And how could it be further improved?
The Palauan Shark Sanctuary
The shark sanctuary in Palau covers the entire EEZ; meaning that waters up to 200 nautical miles surrounding the hundreds of islands that make up the country are all protected by legislation. This totals an area of 629,000 km2 - an area the size of France!
Within the boundary of the Palau EEZ, shark fishing is illegal. Only small, local, artisanal vessels may fish sharks in small numbers, but international fishing vessels are banned. The sale of any sharks products is also illegal within the country's borders (Vianna et al, 2016).
Is the sanctuary working?
The problem is that it is quite difficult to determine whether these conservation measures are working. This is because there were no surveys telling us how large the shark populations were naturally in the region before we started fishing them (known as a "baseline"), so it is difficult to quantify if they are increasing (Vianna et al, 2016).
One way to tackle this, is to start sampling the shark numbers in the area and see how they change in the coming years. One group of scientists surveyed sharks in the sanctuary 4 years after it was implemented... They discovered that the average density of sharks (aka the number of individual sharks within a certain specified area) was between 3.6 - 8.4 sharks per hectare across the whole sanctuary. So, at least when we look at the shark populations in the future, we can determine whether the protective measures have helped them to recover in the mean time (Vianna et al, 2016).
Is there illegal shark fishing within the sanctuary?
However, this study also found some alarming results... The scientists noticed that the density of sharks varied when they looked at different regions of the sanctuary. In the areas closer to the main island group (MIG) the shark density was much higher compared to the regions around isolated oceanic islands, such as Merir, Helen and Pulo Anna. There were as many as 15.6 sharks per hectare around the main islands, but as little as 0.8 per hectare at the southwest islands (Vianna et al, 2016).
The researchers hypothesised that this may be due to illegal fishing going on in the more isolated regions of the sanctuary. Throughout the more remote regions there are reports of illegal fishing on coral reefs from local rangers and derelict fishing gear is commonly found, suggesting that illegal fishing has been going on within the sanctuary. Fishers simply would not be able to conduct this illegal work closer to the population centres in Palau, where there is a lot of vessel traffic (Vianna et al, 2016).
Palau is situated in a region of intense commercial fishing, where sharks have been targeted for many decades. Indonesia, bordering Palau to the west, is one of the world's largest exporters of sharks and shark fins, and as a result, has experienced some of the highest population depletions. It is likely that vessels from Indonesia and other neighbours illegally cross the EEZ border into the Palauan sanctuary. If this is not stopped, this fishing pressure will continue to shape the patterns of shark abundance and population sizes within the sanctuary (Vianna et al, 2016).
Is there a surveillance problem in the sanctuary?
Due to the enormous scale of the sanctuary in Palau and the limited infrastructure, surveillance of the entire area is certainly insufficient. Palau has only been able to devote very few vessels and small teams to supervising the sanctuary and accosting law-breakers. Whatsmore, inspections of catches and enforcement of illegal fishing is quite limited (Vianna et al, 2016).
This is a common problem encountered by sharks sanctuaries around the world. By definition these areas must be large in order to support growing populations of sharks, which makes them challenging to police. Whatsmore, the sanctuaries are often located in the high biodiversity regions in the tropics, in the oceans belonging to countries with limited financial resources. This means that local governments face enormous challenges trying to protect their natural resources from poachers on a seriously limited budget (Vianna et al, 2016).
What is the future of the Palauan shark sanctuary?
Thanks to its beautiful reefs and bustling shark populations, Palau has become a Mecca for divers and snorkelers. Thousands of tourists visit Palau every year to experience the pristine waters of the sanctuary. It is estimated that as of 2012, the capitol generated from shark diving in Palau averaged $18 million USD every year, with some years raking in a whopping $19.3 million USD! Therefore, the capitol generated by marine tourism makes up a huge proportion of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Consequently, Palauan people value their live sharks as an important economic resource (Vianna et al, 2010, Vianna et al, 2012).
But not only does shark diving bring in money, research suggests it also helps to actually protect the sanctuary. As shark diving operations are so prevalent and operate so regularly around the Main island Group, their presence alone deters illegal fishing activities (Vianna et al, 2016).
So it seems that tourism and conservation are working side-by-side to achieve the same goals in Palau... Having more sharks is good for everybody - Local people benefit, sharks benefit, everybody wins! In the future, it seems likely that shark populations should continue to flourish in Palau under these conditions. This kind of model is a great example of how conservation and business do not need to be at cross-purposes... By working with local communities to come up with strategies which benefit all stakeholders, conservation initiatives can be driven forwards without alienating local people (Vianna et al, 2016). We must all work together!
Shark conservation in Palau should certainly set a good example to inspire other nations... it seems it already has... with as many as 13 other countries following suit and declaring their waters to be shark sanctuaries since Palau set the bar. Hopefully, not too far from now, we can reap the benefits of these actions and will begin to see populations of sharks stabilise... and maybe even grow back to much healthier levels. Wouldn't that be wonderful (Vianna et al, 2010).
“Palau’s success in harnessing sharks as a profitable, renewable and non-consumptive resource presents a model applicable to other diving destinations throughout the tropics.”
- Vianna et al, 2012
To learn more about how shark diving drives conservation forwards, you can check out my other articles on ecotourism.
Vianna GMS, Meekan MG, Pannell D, Marsh S & Meeuwig JJ (2010). Wanted dead or alive? The relative value of reef sharks as a fishery and an ecotourism asset in Palau. Australian Institute of Marine Science and University of Western Australia, Perth. Access online. Access online.
Vianna GMS, Meekan MG, Pannell DJ, Marsh SP & Meeuwig JJ (2012). Socio-economic value and community benefits from shark-diving tourism in Palau: A sustainable use of reef shark populations. Biological Conservation, 145:1, 267-277.
Vianna GMS (2015). Conservation of Reef Sharks in the Palau Shark Sanctuary: Implications of Spatial Ecology, Socio-Economic Value and Anthropogenic Impacts. PhD Thesis, University of Western Australia.
Vianna GMS, Meekan MG, Ruppert LLW, Bornovski TH & Meeuwig JJ (2016). Indicators of fishing mortality on reef-shark populations in the world’s first shark sanctuary: the need for surveillance and enforcement. Coral Reefs, 35:3, 973-977. Access online.