Sunday, February 21, 2010 - 20:30

Dateline video journalist David O'Shea takes his first ever scuba dive and plunges into the controversy over saving the ocean's top predator.

The tiny Pacific nation of Palau has declared itself the world's first national shark sanctuary. It's in response to the massive plunder of sharks that occurs in its vast territorial waters, part of an estimated 100 million sharks killed each year.

This carnage is being fuelled by Asia's rapidly growing appetite for shark fin soup. The sharks are captured, have their fins hacked off and are then thrown overboard to die.

Tiny Palau has warned the world it will protect its natural resources, but with only one patrol boat, can the shark sanctuary ever be enforced?

Watch our report and take a look at our photo gallery of behind the scenes photos and underwater pictures from David's story.



Whenever George Negus comes to this Arab part of the world,he always like to spend a few hours wandering through the bazaars and the souks, through these narrow lanes and admiring all these stalls.he really love it - they're full of life. On the other hand, David O'Shea has been in a part of the world that's as far removed from the souk in Libya and still be on the same planet - Palau, in the Pacific.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

Today I'm going to take my first ever scuba dive in the world's first national shark sanctuary. To get to the action it's a short, but very fast, boat ride through the lagoon and out past the beautiful limestone rock islands. Dermott Keane, a dive shop manager who's been lobbying for a sanctuary for years can't wait to get in the water.

DERMOTT KEANE, SHARK ACTIVIST: I have worked on this for almost eight years and I have had many, many dives in Palau and many, many dives with sharks, but this is going to be my very, very first dive in the new sanctuary, that was declared by President Toribiong.

My instructor, Jim Wilkie, is also coming along to make sure I am OK.

JIM WILKIE, DIVE INSTRUCTOR: So, Dave, when we hit the water, I will try to get in just as quick as you. We are going to keep the wall on the right and the sharks on the left. Any questions, comments, concerns?

REPORTER: No chance of me getting eaten here?

JIM WILKIE: Well, Dave, if it would, it would be the first time it's ever happened in Palau. We put hundreds of thousands of divers in the water on a yearly basis, and not one time has anyone ever been eaten by a shark, but you could be the first! OK, guys, let's go diving.

REPORTER: Okay, all good, all good. Tuck that in there and that in there, and bye!

This dive site is known as Blue Corner. Dermott Keane leads the way into the abyss. The ocean floor is over 300 metres below us. We work our way along the wall to the edge of the drop-off. Palauan diving is famous for the coral hook, which allows you to hang suspended in the upsurging current. 130 species of shark live in and visit Palau's waters but, today, we see mostly grey reef and white tip sharks. Although there have been no formal studies on Palau's shark population, Dermott Keane is convinced the numbers are falling.

DERMOTT KEANE: The frequency of seeing some of the other sharks - oceanic white tips, silkies, threshers - some of the other sharks that tend to be more offshore, that's definitely diminished over the years.

And it's no wonder. These photos show just a fraction of the total number of sharks caught illegally in Palau - part of an estimated 100 million sharks killed worldwide each year. Amidst the carnage, Palau's President, Johnson Toribiong, came up with a plan, and took it to the United nations.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG, PALAU PRESIDENT: The physical strength and beauty of sharks are a natural barometer for the health of our oceans. Therefore, I declare today that Palau will become the world's first national shark sanctuary, ending all commercial shark fishing in our waters and giving a sanctuary for sharks to live and reproduce unmolested in our 2,000 plus square miles of ocean. We call upon all nations to join us.

But not every country feels as generous towards these magnificent creatures. As the middle-class in neighbouring Asia grows, so does demand for shark fin soup - a symbol of status and wealth. Palau's President has first-hand experience of the role the famous dish plays from his time as ambassador to Taiwan.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: If you are a guest of honour they give you a bowl of shark fin soup, which I enjoyed.

REPORTER: What will you say to your hosts the next time you are in Taiwan and they offer you a bowl of shark fin soup?

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: I will tell them, "Excuse me, I became the champion of the preservation of sharks and I have taken a vow not to eat any piece of shark or enjoy a bowl of shark fin soup, thank you very much. Let's have a bowl of chicken soup."

Declaring Palau's waters a shark sanctuary is one thing, actually enforcing it another. Their one patrol boat is meant to cover 600,000 square kilometres of ocean - an area larger than France. Palau's representative at the UN, Stuart Beck, knows it's an enormous challenge.

STUART BECK, PALAU UN REP: The ways and means are yet to be determined. We have problems with surveillance, problems with the capacity to arrest. Palau is a hotspot for piracy and it's very difficult to operate in these circumstances, but somebody has to show the way.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: How do they say it? "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

I join the President as he drops in on the patrol boat, which was donated by the Australian Government.

REPORTER: Is this the first time you have been on board?

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: Yes, my very first time on this patrol boat. I am with Captain Albert. He is an Australian-trained pilot.

Palau's marine police are trained in Launceston.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: Tasmania? That's way down south, right?

Unfortunately, patrols are rare, apparently because the government can't afford the fuel.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: To protect the waters, we are going to initiate, or launch, a more aggressive surveillance program in Palau, but that needs resources, so we are going to work to find money to support our shark sanctuary.

Without the resources to properly patrol Palau's waters, the policing is mostly land-based. Today the authorities are checking returning boats for evidence of shark fishing. But I am told these searches don't happen frequently enough to properly monitor illegal activities.

POLICEMAN: They have marlin, swordfish.

But the culprits don't even bring the illegal haul to port here, instead, transferring it to huge motherships which skirt around the edge of Palau's new sanctuary.

DERMOTT KEANE: We know from other data from law enforcement and other agencies, that they are indeed trans-shipping these things offshore, which is also a violation of their licence agreement. So, not only are they just taking sharks, but they are also other species, and they are denying Palau the proper revenue from the fish they are not licensed to catch.

The crew on these Taiwanese-owned boats are mostly Filipino and Indonesian. These boats are long liners which, as the name suggests, set their baits on lines kilometres long, devastating the marine environment.

DERMOTT KEANE: With these hooks out there, they're catching sharks and turtles and rays, even sometimes sea birds and so forth. So, it's an indiscriminate practice and it catches everything. It causes a lot of by-catch, including sharks, even if they are not intentionally focusing on them, and in some cases they are even catching sea birds, so it really does a lot of damage.

In an effort to help Palau get a sense of the scale of the problem, the Australian Government organised a surveillance flight over Palau's waters last year.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: They discovered about 70 vessels fishing in our waters. Many of them were illegal.

STUART BECK: The Australian Government was kind enough to have a flyover, in which they reported, but that kind of periodic flyover is of no use. We obviously need daily information, geosynchronous information from satellites which indicate which boats are in our waters, and whether their vessel monitors are on. You know, this area needs to be policed, and there is a question about who is going to roll up their sleeves and do it.

The more time I spend down here, I realise the task of policing the world's first shark sanctuary is huge, and I am starting to wonder whether the concept is just a clever tourism marketing campaign. It's certainly working on me. By the end of my first amazing dive I am sold on the sanctuary idea.

DERMOTT KEANE: It's not just a symbolic effort. Palau needs assistance in enforcing this sanctuary, there is no question about it. But I think one of the first things that's incumbent, you know, before you start asking others for help, you have to help yourself. I think that Palau has made it very, very clear that, when we do have these laws, the world has been put on notice. Our friends, with whom we have diplomatic relations, other countries including Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, they are on notice, too. These are our resources and we shall protect them. So, protection and enforcement of this shark sanctuary is indeed the next challenge.

The last time the patrol boat went out, it showed what can be achieved. These photos show police closing in on a Taiwanese long-liner. They are caught red-handed with hundreds of pieces of shark onboard. The captain faces 108 charges, his boat is impounded, and the crew - who have not been charged - spend their days waiting for news on when they can leave. This is the first case to come up since the announcement at the UN, and I am shocked to hear from the President himself that the matter may not even make it to the courts. He says that jailing people and impounding boats is just too costly.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: Sometimes if you try to push the case where the law is enforced to the max, you don't get anything.

But later he brings it up again. He seems concerned that I've raised the matter with him.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: By the way, going back to the case, I am now thinking about requiring the government not to plea bargain any case involving shark fishing and shark finning, but to prosecute every case to the max.

REPORTER: So, you have just had a policy change on the run?

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: Well, I am thinking about that right now. I will look into the law to make sure that maybe we will raise the fines higher, require forfeiture and requires no plea bargain.

Because the impounded boat is Taiwanese, this is tricky for Palau. After all, Taiwanese money built the grand structure the President now sits in. The building next door is the judiciary, but the President's next admission would appear to make a mockery of Palau's legal system.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: If you catch a boat from a country that is friendly to Palau, sometimes the diplomatic relations would, so to speak, compromise the aggressiveness of the prosecutors or the government to enforce the law.

REPORTER: But that particular case is almost a test of your reputation and commitment on this issue?

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: That's true, yes. Not so much my reputation, but Palau's reputation, so I will look into it.

Palau's magnificent waters are world-famous amongst divers. The President's younger brother was recently inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. He was one of the people who convinced the President to declare a shark sanctuary - no small irony, given that Johnson Toribiong was once an attorney for the Taiwanese long-liners.

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: Many, many times and sometimes they catch sharks illegally, sometimes they catch tuna illegally.

REPORTER: So, it's a remarkable transformation for a man who used to defend the interests of the shark fishermen, to someone who has made a complete turnaround as you have?

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: Yes, it really makes no difference to me because when I was a defence attorney, I took an oath to defend my client to the best of my ability. And now that I am the President, I represent all of the people of Palau and have the obligation to protect and preserve our resources, so I approach my job with the same zeal and vigour.

For the sake of future generations, let's hope he's successful. Shark preservation is now well and truly on the curriculum, featuring Finny, the shark.

TEACHER: Save the shark!

CHILDREN: Save the shark!

TEACHER: Save Finny!

CHILDREN: Save Finny!

REPORTER: Have you ever eaten shark?

CHILD: Yes. It's very good.

REPORTER: Will you still be eating shark?

CHILD: No, no, no, no!


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