Is Sinking Illegal Fishing Boats the Answer in the Pacific?


How do you stop illegal poaching one vessel at a time? Palau’s new answer is to burn that vessel to the ground (or rather, the ocean floor).

The small but geographically vast island nation of Palau has recently joined other Asian countries in the sinking or burning fishermen’s vessels when they are discovered illegally fishing. It’s a seemingly radical step in the global war against poaching, but for many locals, it’s a necessity.

Check out this video from the Pew Charitable Trust website of fishing vessels on fire in Palau:


Considering how difficult it is to replenish resources that are being plundered and an increase in illegal fishing, this harsh new method of dealing with poachers may not be as extravagant as it initially seems.

Why is Illegal Fishing Dangerous, especially in Palau?

Illegal fishing is threatening to wipe out a number of species from the face of the earth, and it’s an issue that’s perpetually getting worse. About a fifth of all marine products bought and sold in the world were caught illegally, for an estimated global economic loss of $23.5 billion annually. With major Asian countries like China increasing their demand for black market catches, the problem is only expected to grow.

Palau, one of the smallest countries in the world, is a haven for diverse marine life with a total of 250 tropical islands scattered among 240,000 miles. It’s home to more than 130 species of rays and sharks that are on the verge of extinction.

But this incredible biodiversity is exactly what is attracting poachers from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. With miles of deeper waters that are ideal for evading authorities, pirates and poachers can easily target the shallow waters and reefs, and then retreat to open high seas.

Why is Palau Resorting to Burning Vessels?

  • It’s a big problem, both geographically and financially – Palau is designating 230,000 square miles of territorial waters as a marine sanctuary, which unfortunately, encompasses plenty of prime fishing grounds that are impossible to patrol at all times. Up until recently, Paula only had one patrol boat, while illegal fishermen from all across Asia were streaming in to collect sea cucumbers, reef fish, sharks and other potentially endangered species.
  • Previous efforts to curb illegal fishing haven’t worked – Before this new rouge policy, Palau authorities would strip poachers of their nets and confiscate their catches. Though a temporary fix, it did little to dissuade poachers from returning to the waters, as evident by the rapidly growing number of illegal fishing boats.
  • Resources are limited – Without the ability to enforce increased protection within the legal arena, seizing and burning is a cost-effective fix.
  • It sends a message – Burning a vessel and incarcerating the captain sends a crystal clear message that poaching is not acceptable – a message that hopefully will spread among other poachers.
  • It’s becoming accepted practice – The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has supported the burning of illegal vessels, and has even stated that countries can be held accountable for not taking any required measures to prevent unlawful fishing.
    And other countries are doing it too. In fact, neighboring Indonesia has recently blown up 41 foreign fishing vessels.

Is it vigilante justice? Yes, but in many locals’ minds, it’s justice all the same.

The president of Palau, Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., even told National Geographic magazine that through the new drastic measures, “We hope to send a very clear message to poachers who are raping our marine environment.”

How to Help?

As divers, we depend on the health and longevity of reefs and ecosystems to enjoy our passion. We want future generations to be able to experience the magic and wonder of underwater worlds. Even if you’re thousands of miles away from the problem, you can still be a part of the solution. 

  • Learn More – One of the most important and initial steps is to get informed. Organizations like the Pew Charitable Trusts are instrumental resources for both tracking the issue, and tracking the steps that are being taken to end the practice (like global surveillance.) It’s also a good hub to discover legislation that is in the works to curb illegal fishing, like the recent bill to strengthen global fisheries conservation that was just passed by the U.S. congress.
  • Pay Attention – When you’re shopping for seafood, go local whenever possible. Many coastal regions are implementing “Locally Caught” programs with stickers or other markers to indicate that a fish was acquired legally, from regional waters.
  • Donate – As the holiday season rolls around, it’s a perfect time to donate to Pew and other organizations that are fighting to make sure scientists, scuba divers, and the global population in general has access to these endangered species for generations to come.

How do you feel about these drastic measures to dissuade poachers from depleting marine areas of fish and other endangered species? Let us know in the comments section!

Image attribution:


Article Name
Is Sinking Illegal Fishing Boats the Answer in the Pacific?
Island nations such as Palau and Asian countries are taking drastic steps to dissuade poachers from illegally fishing in their waters.

3 responses to “Is Sinking Illegal Fishing Boats the Answer in the Pacific?”

  1. Katya says:

    This is very drastic, but I think it sets the tone that Palau is not messing around.

  2. B.H. says:

    My emotions are mixed on this strategy. I like the strong message, but think it could be conveyed in better ways.

  3. Keith says:

    This is necessary. Someone needs to stop the elimination of these species.

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