Palau Shark Sanctuary Update

Posted on July 11, 2011
Written by: Todd Essick

Image Gallery

I recently returned from a visit to Palau, where I have lived for a total of 9 months over the last three years. As an underwater photographer, my attraction to Palau has been its healthy population of sharks and mantas. I have long been a supporter of the creation a shark sanctuary in Palau, and I was fortunate to be a witness to Palau becoming the world's first shark sanctuary in 2009. Since arriving in Palau, I have donated many shark images to the creation and support of the Palau Shark Sanctuary (PSS).

Palau Airport Installation

On my latest visit, I was honored to attend the installation of some of my photographs along with two other photographers' images (Mandy Etpison and Gunther Deichmann) as part of a permanent display in the arrival and departure halls of Palau's International Airport. The photographs celebrate Palau as the world's first Shark Sanctuary, a dream that PSS founder and chief architect Dermot Keane initiated in 2001.

The displays welcome and thank travelers to Palau. The photographs emphasize the beauty of sharks and their importance to Palau's economy, as well as to keeping the world’s oceans healthy. Through the efforts of Dermot Keane and a coalition of environmentalists including Shark Savers, Pew trusts, Ed Dorson and many others, President Toribiong of Palau realized that it was in the best interests of Palau and its people for the country to become a shark sanctuary. If foreign fleets were allowed to indiscriminately slaughter Palau’s sharks, Palau would no longer be able to maintain its status as a world-class destination for divers seeking shark encounters.

Palau Shark Sanctuary History

Dermot Keane arrived in Palau 14 years ago, and he learned about the plight of Palau’s sharks from divers, local Palauan boat operators, dive guides and marine biologists, as well as from his own experience. He formed the dream of PSS in name in 2001. A long hard road was traveled as he and others worked tirelessly to make Palau a sanctuary. It became a reality when President Toribiong declared Palau a Shark Sanctuary at the United Nations in 2009, raising awareness in the international community that sharks need to be protected everywhere. In 2010, Shark Savers thanked President Toribiong: Shark Savers' "Thank you to Palau" book presented to Palauan President Toribiong.


The Palau Shark Sanctuary is roughly the size of France, making the laws prohibiting poaching for the lucrative shark fin soup market impossible to enforce. This year illegal foreign fishing vessels targeted Palau's southwest islands and laid waste to Palau's reefs and fish stocks, including many turtles. The raiders are far better equipped than the local rangers, who were powerless to stop them. In April Palau had reached an agreement with Sea Shepherd to patrol the Shark Sanctuary and protect it from illegal fishing. Under pressure primarily from the US, but also Japan and Australia, Palau was forced to back away from letting Sea Shepard provide protection to its sharks in the waters of the sanctuary. It remains to be seen where the enforcement will come from while Palau’s main patrol boat goes through a refit. Japan has offered a patrol boat. I personally would rather have Sea Shepherd back.

Recently Raja Ampat was able to put teeth to its shark sanctuary, successfully prosecuting poachers there: Enforcement Victories. But the challenges of policing such large swaths of open ocean remain daunting.

Legislative Efforts and Remaining Challenges

The last few days and weeks have been full of good news with other countries following Palau's lead by enacting legislation to protect sharks in their waters. The Bahamas, Honduras, and Fiji are the most recent examples. However, the passing of laws is only the first step, and much more needs to be done. Consumer countries also need to enact legislation banning the possession and trade of shark fins and shark products, removing the economic incentives that fuel the slaughter of sharks. A push for the ban of shark fins and shark products everywhere as well as in our own country is gaining traction. California is on the road to in enacting such legislation, following Oregon and Washington state; hopefully they will show the USA and the rest of the world that sharks are worth the most to us when left to thrive in the oceans.

Todd Essick
You can see addiitonal photos of sharks and mantas from my recent Palau trip on my Facebook page.


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