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September 26, 2009

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Palau creates world's first shark haven

THE tiny Pacific nation of Palau is creating the world's first shark sanctuary to protect great hammerheads, leopard sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks and more than 130 other species fighting extinction in the Pacific Ocean.

But with only one boat to patrol 621,600 square kilometers of Palau's newly protected waters, enforcement of the new measure could be almost like swimming against the tide.

Palau's president, who was due to announce the news to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, acknowledges the difficulty of patrolling ocean waters nearly the size of Texas or France with a single boat.

But he hopes others will respect Palauan territorial waters -- and that the shark haven inspires more global conservation efforts.

"Palau will declare its territorial waters and extended economic zone to be the first officially recognized sanctuary for sharks," Palauan President Johnson Toribiong said.

Shark fishing has grown rapidly since the mid-1980s, driven by a rising demand for shark fin soup. Because of their long life spans and low fertility rates, sharks are vulnerable to overfishing.

Within its extended economic zone 300 kilometer from the island's coast, a nation may regulate fisheries and scientific research and develop other economic efforts. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates more than half of highly migratory sharks are overexploited or depleted.

Toribiong said a recent flyover by Australian aircraft showed more than 70 vessels fishing Palau's waters, many of them illegally.

"We'll do the best we can, given our resources," he said. "The purpose of this is to call attention to the world to the killing of sharks for commercial purposes, including to get the fins to make shark fin soups, and then they throw the bodies in the water."


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