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By Scott Radway

KOROR, Palau, (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 8) - Officials here have again set fire to a mound of shark fins seized from a foreign fishing vessel, this time to signal the coming enforcement of a new law that strictly prohibits the exploitation of that marine resource.

In May, Palau President Tommy Remengesau burned a pile of illegally-caught shark fins, saying he wanted to notify foreign fishermen that Palau sharks were off limits and to call attention to the need for stronger laws protecting sharks in the country's waters. Palau law then only prevented vessels from targeting sharks with specific tackle.

Remengesau, who received international attention for the shark fin bonfire, also said the republic could have sold the fins for a sizable profit.

"Palau is not in the business of selling shark fins, nor do we want to be," he said.

In September, Palau passed a law banning shark finning -- the practice of lopping off the highly-valued shark fins and tossing the shark body back in the water. Palau also took the additional step of banning shark fishing all together, a level of protection few countries have taken.

The recent seizure of 1,000 pounds of shark fin and 2,500 pounds of shark bodies from the Taiwanese long-liner Ching Chung Fa was the first time Palau's new law has been enforced.

Remengesau ordered the shark bonfire Monday both to demonstrate that Palau was serious about enforcing its new law and to show his refusal to sell the shark haul, said Hazime Telei, director of public safety. The shark parts were worth $180,000.

The president did not attend Monday's burning.

In Palau, across the Pacific and the globe, fishermen have increasingly targeted sharks for markets in Southeast Asia, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the expensive dish of shark fin soup is widely popular.

Marine biologists denounce shark finning because it wastes nearly the entire catch. But they also oppose fishing heavily for sharks because they are apex predators with slow reproductive cycles. That means there are fewer numbers of sharks and that they bounce back slowly, if at all, from heavy fishing, biologists say.

A customs officer discovered the shark cargo as the Ching Chung Fa, a licensed vessel in Palau, was being cleared to leave the republic, authorities said. Neither the shark bodies nor shark fins were listed on the ship's manifest.

Palau agreed to a settlement that released the vessel for a payment of $10,000, in part because the case was the first violation of the new law, according to the Office of the Attorney General. The new law matches the increased protections with hefty criminal penalties, as high as $500,000 per violation.

But according to a press release on the settlement from the Office of the Attorney General, that lighter penalty is not an indication of lenience in future cases.

"The Office of the Attorney General intends to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law future violations of the prohibition against shark-finning," the release said.

January 8, 2004

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