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Steve Kurutz of the NYT Sunday City section wrote a nice profile of the relationship between NYU Law School and the Palau Mission to the UN.  I'm an NYU law student (the "Peter" in the article) who's been working on oceans issues at the Palau Mission over the past year.  The President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, has been perhaps the world's most outspoken leader on environmental and oceans protection issues, which shouldn't be surprising given Palau's reliance on the ocean.  He and Palau deserve a lot of credit for their environmentalism.  I thought Kossacks would be interested.

More on the flip...

Palau's legislature just passed a law, signed by the President, to ban bottom trawl fishing within Palau's jurisdiction and also to penalize any Palauan anywhere in the world who bottom trawls.  The legislation also calls for a worldwide ban on unregulated bottom trawling as most of the world's oceans are completely without protection.  Bottom trawling involves scraping large weighted nets across the seabed to catch the fish living in the waters just above, but in the process it destroys corals, sponges, and everything else in the process.  It's very much like strip-mining or slashing-and-burning the ocean floor for just a few tens of millions of dollars a year in worldwide revenue.  The genetic and biodiversity potential that is being lost every day to this practice is truly appalling.

At the UN, we've been working to try to build a consensus in support of a ban on unregulated bottom trawling beyond national jurisdictions, much as was done in the early 1990s for large scale driftnet fishing (which ended up catching lots of whales and other bycatch in the process of fishing for tuna).  But the countries that show up to these negotiations are many of the same countries that have bottom trawling fleets operating beyond national jurisdictions, so it's a bit like having the foxes guard the henhouse.

Certainly many of these same countries are restricting bottom trawling within their own waters.  The United States just closed most of the West Coast EEZ to bottom trawling.  New Zealand, Australia, Norway, the European Union and others have legislation restricting the practice as well.  So what is the excuse for not respecting the waters beyond?  Well, there are classical problems of collective action and the prisoner's dilemma--unless countries act together, there's little sense in countries to unilaterally 'disarm.'  As Phil Heatley, a spokesman for New Zealand's fisheries industry, put it recently in opposing a bottom trawl ban on an interim basis for the Pacific:  "Destroying the New Zealand fishing industry by way of a blanket moratorium would achieve nothing because other nations would still be able to bottom trawl the high seas completely unabated."

In a year of UN "reform", surely taking action on a few pressing issues will be how success is measured.  This destruction of seabed ecosystems (part of the "common heritage of mankind") surely must be one of those issues.  Will Palau be alone in this call, or will others join?

Originally posted to Petrox on Sun Mar 26, 2006 at 09:44 AM PST.

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