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Palau Shark Sanctuary Blog

A History of Efforts to Save Palau's Sharks
 
As a tourist to Palau in 1995, and later in 1997 as an employee of a prominent Palau dive shop whose next door neighbor is a base for foreign fishing vessels, Dermot Keane was a firsthand witness to the shocking sight of licensed foreign fishing vessels returning to Palau's port with thousands of shark fins blatantly hanging from their rigging. The taking of those fins no doubt caused the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of Palau's sharks. Dive shop staff members that included the owners, local Palauan boat operators, dive instructors and tour guides, several of whom were marine biologists, were already engaged in an ongoing fight since the late eighties against this senseless, destructive and absolutely inappropriate practice, especially in the face of Palau's growing attraction as a world-class dive destination for shark encounters.

When personal pleas to fishing company management to halt the practice of shark finning went unheeded, surprise inspections of suspected vessels were made by camera-toting dive shop staff who photographed cargoes of shark fins which they used to create public awareness of this heretofore unnoticed destruction.
 
 
Environmental writer Lance Leonhardt documented the story of these efforts in an article published in 1998 in Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine, a leading North American dive publication that has since been renamed Scuba Diving Magazine.

Biologist Ron Leidich led a petition drive to inform community members and visiting divers of the unheralded destruction of Palau's sharks. A study then followed that conclusively showed the value and importance of sharks to Palau's tourism-based economy. Study findings were presented in a report to the Palau National Congress, inspiring draft legislation to ban shark finning and other destructive fishing practices in Palau.

Concerned citizens and community members enlisted the support of Palauan Noah Idechong, a former PEW Fellow, Delegate to Palau's National Congress (OEK) and a founding member of Palau Conservation Society, who was already engaged in legislative efforts to end the destruction of Palau's sharks. Delegate Idechong championed the cause of shark protection and played a leading role in the eventual passage by Palau of some of the toughest shark protection legislation in the world.

Leidich later authored "Blue Corner Diver" an educational course for scuba divers on shark behavior at "Blue Corner", Palau's world-renowned dive site famous for its' large schools of resident sharks. Leidich's program was subsequently approved as a Continuing Education course by PADI, the largest international diver training agency, and became the very first "PADI Blue Corner Diver Distinctive Specialty Course".

Another marine biologist Ethan Daniels served as dive guide to a film crew from the Discovery Channel "Shark Week" program that documented the plight of Palau's dwindling shark population. Guided by marine biologist Daniels, the film crew visited many of Palau's best know dives sites studying shark behavior and documented the noticeable decrease in the once abundant schools of sharks.

With assistance from biologist Leidich and other concerned local community members, the Shark Week film crew made an unannounced visit to a foreign fishing vessel unloading in Malakal Port, catching a surprised crew with holds full of shark carcasses and shark fins from numerous shark species. While shark fishing and finning was not illegal the ships manifest presented to Palau Customs officials declared the cargo as tuna and other permitted catch, thereby committing the offence of falsifying records. The airing of Shark Week caused considerable outcry both in Palau and overseas against this destruction of Palau's natural resources, generating further support for legislation to end shark finning in Palau's waters.

In 2009 Delegate Idechong was re-elected to represent the State of Ngiwal in Palau's National Congress (OEK). He remains active in the Palau Conservation Society.

Leidich continues his quest to educate the public about Palau's marine environment through popular public lectures and weeklong environmental education tours that he leads throughout Palau. Leidich has been featured in numerous magazine articles including Islands Magazine, November 2002 issue. He resides in Palau with his Palauan wife and family.

Biologist Ethan Daniels went on to become a National Science Officer for the Republic of Palau, representing the country at international conferences on conservation and environmental issues. He returned to the U.S. to engage in scientific research on Antarctica. An accomplished underwater photographer, Daniels has published his work in books and posters on marine life in Palau and most recently is a field editor for many leading dive publications. He is a frequent visitor to Palau.

Dermot Keane went on to launch the Palau Shark Sanctuary in November 2001, to continue the fight to end shark finning in Palau and round the world. He resides in Palau with his Palauan wife and family.
 
 
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