President of Palau Tommy Remengesau Jr. has announced at a UN conference on oceans and seas that his country will become a “100% marine sanctuary” where all commercial fishing is prohibited.

The Pacific island nation of Palau has made Ethical Traveler’s “World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations” list four years running. It created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, with 460 miles of reefs and lagoon waters designated as no fishing zones. As a treasure trove of marine life it is only natural that this country of close to 300 islands would want to protect its unique ecological heritage against the ravages of exploitation.

From Australia’s ABC News:

We have no choice – the ocean is our way of life. It’s our livelihood, it’s our culture, it’s our economy – I always say the economy is our environment and the environment is our economy. You may ask why, why are you doing this? It makes every sense for our sustainability as a people, as an island nation, and as a community

—Tommy Remengesau Jr., President of Palau

Palau's Jellyfish Lake. Pic: aSIMULAtor (Flickr CC)

But Palau banning all commercial fishing still comes as a bit of a surprise, as it is not a rich country in terms of monetary wealth. Contracts with Japan, Taiwan and private fishing companies no doubt supplied income. But Palau is putting its money where its mouth is and concentrating on ecotourism. It wants to keep its waters teeming with sea life — which is, after all, what brings the visitors.

I have argued in the past that capitalism discourages sustainability. Its general modus operandi is to make as much money in as little time as possible because you never know what’s around the bend. This may not be market theory, but it is all too often market practice. That’s one reason the government planning and steering of economies exists. The argument against a laissez-faire market system where virtually all resources are open for exploitation is extremely strong in places like Palau, where the entire economy (and future) rests on preserving its natural environment.

Contrast Palau with another Pacific island nation — Nauru, which began as a tropical paradise and then became one big, rich bauxite mine and finally a poor, barren wasteland that makes money by peddling UN votes and taking in refugees that Australia doesn’t want. Australia itself, which makes a huge amount of tourist dollars off the Great Barrier Reef, would do well to listen to Palau’s president and enact strong measures to protect its national treasure and wonder of the world. Overfishing and the destruction of by-catch are visibly impacting the health of the Great Barrier Reef along with pollution, over development and other factors.

A Napoleon wrasse. Pic: Klaus Stiefel (Flickr CC)

I may not be the best fisherman, but I am a fisherman. I can tell you that in just my generation I’ve seen stocks of fish dwindle down, I’ve seen the sizes of fish taken become more smaller. This is something that is far more than the economical loss of revenues for companies or other countries – you’re talking about a livelihood that’s really going to be decimated if we don’t take the responsible action.

—Tommy Remengesau

Locals and tourists will still be permitted to fish, but all commercial fishing will end within Palau’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.