A shark asylum. That’s how I first heard the nation of Palau’s move to ban all shark fishing in its South Pacific waters described. This means that any shark making its way to the waters off the coasts of Palau’s more than 200 islands won’t be hunted for profit, or sport. The area covered by the ban extends over 230,000 square miles. That’s an area, according to the BBC, the size of France. Palau’s president, Johnson Toribiong, also called for a global ban on “finning” – the astonishing industry practice whereby sharks’ fins are cut off and then they, still alive, are returned to the sea. Each year, up to 100 million sharks are killed in seas and oceans globally. “The need to protect the sharks outweighs the need to enjoy a bowl of soup,” Toribiong said. Indeed. Many other species, land and marine, could use asylum akin to Palau’s as they contend with loss of habitat to human endeavors, legal hunting, poaching and changing environment conditions due to global warming. Will the notion of species asylum catch on in the conservation community? Will other nations step up?
Will resources be made available to ensure that such “asylums” remain safe harbors? A recent survey found numerous illegal fishing boats trawling Palau’s waters. American actress January Jones, from TV’s “Mad Men,” visited recently with several U.S. senators to urge their support for the Shark Conservation Act. It would help close a loophole that allows shark “finners” to skirt the line between legality and illegality. What is clear is that Palau, which only became an independent nation in 1994, has set quite a standard in declaring the world’s first (surprising, no?) shark sanctuary. And it hasn’t restricted asylum to non-human species. In June 2009, Palau accepted 17 of the men held for years on terrorism charged at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.