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Pacific nation fights back against alleged poachers

A tiny Pacific nation’s government set fire to four boats belonging to Vietnamese sea cucumber and marine wildlife poachers.

A tiny Pacific nation’s government — tired of foreign illegal commercial fishermen pillaging its waters — set fire to four boats belonging to Vietnamese sea cucumber and marine wildlife poachers.

The Associated Press reported that Palau, fighting a rising tide of illegal fishing in its waters, hopes to turn most of the island nation’s territorial waters into a national marine sanctuary, banning commercial fishing and exports, apart from limited areas set aside for use by domestic fishermen and tourists.

Palau president Tommy Remengesau Jr. wants to give a strong message to “pirates who come and steal our resources,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press from Washington, D.C., where he was visiting.

The country created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, but until recently it had only one patrol boat to help protect its great hammerheads, leopard sharks and more than 130 other species of sharks and rays fighting extinction.

The four boats that were destroyed Friday were among 15 that Palau authorities have caught fishing illegally in their waters since last year with loads of sharks and shark fins, lobsters, sea cucumbers and reef fish. Several of the boats that Palau seized, stripped of their fishing gear, are due to carry 77 crewmembers of those boats back to Vietnam.

About 600 miles east of the Philippines, Palau is one of the world’s smallest countries, its 20,000 people scattered across a tropical archipelago of 250 islands that is considered a biodiversity hotspot.

Driven by rising demand from China and elsewhere in Asia, overfishing threatens many species of fish. With 240,000 square miles of territorial waters, including its exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, extending 200 miles from its coastline, Palau is battling to prevent poaching of its sea life by fishermen from across southeast Asia.

Despite progress in tracing the sources of fish sold to consumers, about a fifth of the global market for marine products caught and sold, or about $23.5 billion, is caught illegally.

Advances in telecommunications and vessel tracking technology have improved surveillance, but enforcing restrictions on unauthorized fishing is costly and difficult, especially given the many “pockets” of high seas in the area. High seas pockets, beyond the jurisdiction of any government, account for nearly two-thirds of all ocean areas.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for illegal fishing and other transnational crime. It’s a challenge,” said Seth Horstmeyer, campaigns director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program.

From Palau to Japan is a vast expanse of seas that no one controls and no one owns, areas that serve as refuges for illegal fishing vessels.

Vietnamese fishermen tend to prowl shallow seas and reefs in search of sea cucumbers and reef fish and flee back into those deeper waters to evade capture, Horstmeyer said.

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