A Tiny Island Nation Is Burning Illegal Fishing Boats to Prove a Point

Palau wants to protect its 230,000 square miles of pristine waters for tourism.

Columns of black smoke rise from four Vietnamese boats in the waters off Palau on June 12. (Photo: Jeff Barabe/The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Jun 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Palau, an island nation in the western Pacific, has decided to take protecting its marine resources into its own hands in fiery fashion.

Palau’s president recently ordered its one police boat to tow four Vietnamese blue-hulled fishing boats out to sea and set them on fire.

The boats were found fishing in the nation’s waters, which were recently closed to all commercial fishing. Palau’s move in March 2014 to protect 230,000 square miles of ocean created one the world’s largest marine sanctuaries.

“We hope to send a very clear message to poachers, who are raping our marine environment,” Palau President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. said in a statement.

Since the sanctuary was established, Palau police have captured 15 Vietnamese fishing boats in its territorial waters. The ocean surrounding Palau’s 250-plus islands are rich with fish such as tuna, reef fish, and sea cucumbers.

Remengesau said the four fishing vessels were spotted harvesting sea cucumbers—a traditional Vietnamese dish—and reef fish. More than eight metric tons of fish were found on board the boats, bringing the total amount of illegally taken marine life found aboard Vietnamese fishing vessels to 25 metric tons.

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The crew aboard the four boats were released and sent on their way on a separate boat loaded with enough fuel and food for the journey home. The captains remain in custody and could have to pay up to $1 million in fines.

So, Why Should You Care? Illegal fishing operations waste as much as 2 billion pounds of inadvertently caught fish a year in the United States alone, indiscriminately killing sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks. Establishing marine sanctuaries in ecologically sensitive locations can reverse declining fish populations, support food production, and bring new tourism opportunities, such as scuba diving and snorkeling.

The punishment shows a drastic difference in how the tiny island nation handles its marine resources and how the U.S. is dealing with illegal fishing. For example, a recent incident in the Gulf of Mexico involved a shrimping boat found with 120 red snapper, a fish threatened by overfishing. The most punishment the captain could face is $20,000 in fines—a slap on the wrist for many large commercial fishing operations.

“The fine should be six figures, and, even better, there should be a clear provision in the law that allows suspension for an extended period of the fishing license [for any and all species] held by the vessel’s owner,” Norm Schultz, a recreational fishing consultant, wrote in Soundings Trade Only.

In Palau, the president has taken zero tolerance to a new level.

“Palau is simply no longer an option when it comes to poaching,” Remengesau said. “This message goes to the captain and crews of these vessels. Palau guarantees you will return with nothing. Captains will be prosecuted and jailed. Boats will be burned. Nothing will be gained from poaching in Palau. From one fisherman to another, respect Palau.”