A majority of the 20,000 people in the island country of Palau rely on marine life for their livelihoods. The economy of the nation, which is spread across 250 islands in the Western Pacific Ocean, depends on tuna fishing and deep-diving tourism. The latter, driven by the shark population, accounts for the country’s $85 million deep-sea tourism industry. That breaks down to $170,000 per year for every alive shark, which is why the country enforced a ban on shark fishing in 2009 to build a sanctuary for divers. Even so, sharks and turtles are often unintentionally, even illegally, hauled in as bycatch on longline fishing boats.
In 2014, the Palauan government took more aggressive measures to protect the rich but vulnerable marine life. It announced a revolutionary ban on export fishing across its territorial waters — 200 nautical miles of the ocean surrounding the cluster of islands. And while local fisheries were allowed to operate, it became mandatory to have observers on board every tuna longliner. The new regulation was intended to keep overfishing and poaching in check. It would make vessel operators accountable for their catch, but the high costs of dedicating a person to every ship has kept the law from being fully implemented. A staggering 98 percent of the longline vessels continue to operate without any oversight in the region.
Palau’s longline tuna fishery is small in comparison with others in the Pacific. But it boasts of some of the most coveted fish species in the world. As such it plays a significant role in the ecological system and economic stability of Palau. To maintain that delicate balance, The Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit organization, funds scientific research and provides technological solutions that can help establish a sustainable fishing model for the country.
In February of this year, the environmental organization bought fishing rights for a year in the Pacific region to test practices that would reduce bycatch. The Conservancy also launched a pilot project that has now equipped 24 boats with cameras and GPS devices to electronically monitor the fishing activities. The data fills in crucial gaps in knowledge about the catch on the boats and it supports the work of the human observers who can review the footage from multiple trips without being out at sea for months on end.
“We didn’t know what was happening in our waters,” says Kalei Luii, a compliance officer for the Division of Oceanic Fisheries Management in Palau, who works with the observers. “Bigeye tuna is our most prized fish, and their numbers were going down. [This] technology is helping us efficiently and sustainably manage our tuna fishery.”
While the data allows more coverage across Palau’s tuna fishery, the process is incredibly time-consuming and expensive.