Lost in a great abyss of the deep blue ocean, lies the pristine paradise of Palau. For such a tiny area of land, it packs a big punch only attracting a handful of tourists each year.
With untouched beauty that can only be found in this remote corner of the mighty Pacific, this oasis harbours a diverse environment and an ancient island culture, still very much alive. With an extraordinary array of natural wonders, friendly natives, and a perfect spot to relax - most people come to Palau for the unparalleled dives and breath-taking waters.
Unsurprisingly, diving is the number-one activity here, due to its world-class dive sites. Divers have sworn that Palau has exciting seascape, fascinating wrecks and stunningly diverse marine life - where you can expect to encounter sharks, manta rays and even the possibility of swimming alongside the large marine mammals like common dolphins or even small whales.
Back in 2009, Palau (one of the world’s smallest countries) became the world’s first national shark sanctuary, ending all commercial shark fishing in the waters and giving a sanctuary for sharks to live and reproduce in over 200,000 square miles of ocean. This step later led to the formation of other shark sanctuaries around the world, particularly in the Maldives, Honduras, Bahamas, and Tokelau.
Palau's president, who first announced the news to the United Nations General Assembly, acknowledged the difficulty of patrolling ocean waters nearly the size of Texas or France with a single boat. But he hopes others will respect Palauan territorial waters — and that the shark haven inspires more such conservation efforts globally.
"Palau will declare its territorial waters and extended economic zone to be the first officially recognized sanctuary for sharks," Palauan President Johnson Toribiong told the Associated Press in an interview.
Shark fishing has grown rapidly since the mid-1980s, driven by a rising demand — which has been mainly in China — for a ‘delicacy’ known as shark fin soup, a highly prized symbol of wealth. More often then not the shark’s skin has been used to make articles of clothing, cosmetics, and medicine. Because of their long life spans and low fertility rates, sharks are vulnerable to overfishing.
Here in Palau - the shark sanctuary shelters more than 135 Western Pacific species of sharks and rays considered endangered or vulnerable, or for which there is not enough data to determine how the species is faring. But due to the changes made, visitors can now witness the many species of sharks that will thrive because of the efforts of dedicated individuals that have worked towards the goal of protecting these amazing creatures. With over half of the world’s oceanic sharks at risk of extinction, this was a huge move in protecting these beautiful creatures.
It’s been noted that as many as 100 million sharks are killed each year around the world. "These creatures are being slaughtered and are perhaps at the brink of extinction unless we take positive action to protect them," said President Toribiong. "Their physical beauty and strength, in my opinion, reflects the health of the oceans; they stand out," he told BBC News from UN headquarters in New York.
Setting the Bar
Due to Palau’s culture and their livelihood being so closely linked to the sea, the people of the community have shown how they will do and want to do everything to preserve the natural beauty and balance of the ocean. Regardless of how big a step it may be to conserve as many marine species as humanly possible. Back in early 2014 Palau also declared an area of the island as a no commercial fishing zone as well - which in turn has made them the biggest marine sanctuary in the world!
"Palau has basically raised the bar for the rest of the world for shark conservation," said Matt Rand, director for global shark conservation for Washington-based Pew Environment Group.
Today the governments of Congo-Brazzaville, Maldives, French Polynesia, Palau, Israel, and Honduras have banned all types of shark fishing within their territorial waters, including recreational fishing and bottom trawling. This involves fishing boats dragging a giant net along the seafloor - which cause horrendous damage to coral and sea life.
Making a Change
Since Palau’s efforts to make a change back in 2009, they still continue to this very day, to help educate both individuals and entire nations about the importance of protecting sharks in their natural habitats. By not only talking about the issues at bay, Palau has set a world-wide change to what’s possible when the right efforts and laws are implemented to protect the diverse sea life that allows the oceans to thrive. Hopefully, with their leading example, others will see how vital it is to save the sharks and the importance they have in the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems.