KOROR, PALAU - The Pacific nation of Palau has amended plans to create a huge marine reserve so Japanese fishing boats still have partial access to its waters.
Fish stocks are overexploited around the world, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned this year, and Palau has long been regarded as a pioneer in ocean conservation.
The island nation will close 80 percent of its exclusive economic zone — a 500,000 square kilometer (193,000 square mile) area roughly the size of Spain — to commercial fishing from next year.
The remaining 20 percent was to be reserved for Palau fishing boats only, but President Tommy Remengesau said Japan — one of Palau’s major foreign aid donors — asked for the plans to be changed.
In response, the government last week passed legislation that will allow some foreign long-line vessels into the area.
Remengesau said the changes are to accommodate vessels from Okinawa, which have fished the waters for generations.
“We’re close to Japan and we want to accommodate them where we can,” Remengesau said.
Natural Resources Minister Umiich Sengebau said the changes will not undermine the sanctuary’s conservation value.
“Japan has come out and actually endorsed the amendment and that’s good for Japan, but it was really something we want to do for Palau to have an industry that we can sustain,” he said.
The country created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009 and will next year introduce a ban on reef-toxic sunscreens.
Remengesau said his nation — renowned as one of the world’s top diving spots — was prioritizing tourism when he announced the plan in 2015.
The tourist industry accounts for about 50 percent of the country’s economy, above the tuna fishing industry.
Tokyo-based charity The Nippon Foundation has donated a patrol vessel to Palau to help prevent illegal fishing in the vast ocean reserve.
Environment group Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy, which helped formulate the blueprint for the sanctuary, said it is examining the changes introduced last week.
“While we are still working to fully analyze the legislation, we continue to support Palau as a world leader in ocean conservation,” said Ashleigh Cirilla, a senior manager at the group.