In 2009 after years of lobbying by Dermot Keane Palau declared the world’s first shark sanctuary banning shark fishing in an area which covers 240,000 square miles of sea in this Pacific nation.
Although the shark is wrongly considered a bloodthirsty and dangerous predator it is one which is on the brink of extinction in many parts of the world. Luckily in the area of Palau the shark has found a champion in Mr Keane.
Although the sanctuary only has one patrol boat it is making a significant dent in the amount of illegal fishing in the area.
Keane decided the sanctuary was necessary in 1995 when he visited the archipelago for the first time and witnessed foreign fishing boats hunting in the waters. The area feeds Asia’s trade for shark fin soup. The hunters go ‘finning’ this means hacking off the dorsal fin of the sharks before throwing them back into the water to die.
Speaking to AFP Keane said “When I first came here, there were 50 or 60 shark boats working the waters…They had shark fins hanging from the rigging.
"Not only was it visually offensive for someone who came here as a tourist to scuba dive, the smell was pretty awful too. The sight of shark fins laid out to dry on the boats was not a positive image for Palau."
According to Pew Environment Group reports up to 73 million sharks are killed every year for their fins. They can fetch up to $100 per kilogram on the black market.
Keane now helps to run a diving business and moved to Palau in 1997 and began his campaign for a sanctuary. He said that as the top predators the sharks play a vital role in the ecology and the country was determined to protect all 130 species of shark found in their waters.
“We're seeing less and less of the pelagic (deep water) sharks," said Keane. “With their removal an unbalanced food chain results, changing the way the natural environment functions."
In the beginning Keane’s campaign seemed too confrontational and as someone who was essentially working in the tourism industry it seemed the showing the public blood and guts images of the ‘finning’ was too confrontational.
He said “It was very much a blood and guts message of showing people pictures of sharks and fins and trying to explain what was going on…At the same time, through my work, I was trying to promote Palau as a tourist destination and I was concerned I was working against myself.
"So I started looking for a way to save sharks which was positive, and that's how I arrived at the idea." The idea of a shark sanctuary.
However the idea of protecting the predator didn’t catch on immediately. He said “At first, if you were to press the locals about whether they were for or against it [shark finning’], most of them, even though they weren't directly involved in it, would say 'never mind the sharks, they take our fish'."
Thankfully now 21,000 are advocates for the protection of the sharks. Making it one of the world’s leading advocates for shark preservation.
The President of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, has raised the issue of the plight of the shark to the United Nations on several occasions. He has also cited studies which show that the predators are much better value as tourist attractions rather than commercial catch.
Speaking at the sanctuary’s first anniversary he said “The need to protect sharks outweighs the need to enjoy a bowl of soup…These creatures are being slaughtered and are at the brink of extinction unless we take positive action to protect them."
Thomas Tutii from Palau's Marine Law Enforcement Division said that although their resources are slight the foreign vessels seem to be getting the message. There have been no ‘finning’ arrests for more than one year.
Tutii said “We can't completely stop illegal shark fishing but the declaration has been effective…We haven?t seen shark fins on board the foreign fishing vessels and they seem to be complying and they are more conscious that they're not allowed to fish for shark."
Since Keane and President Toribiong established the sanctuary one year ago other nations such as the Maldives and Honduras have established similar sanctuaries.