Palau Can Use Public Diplomacy to Combat Illegal Fishing – Genevieve Neilson

As one of the most biodiverse sets of islands in the Pacific, Palau relies on the health of its oceans for tourism and fisheries industries, but the country is increasingly threatened by impacts of illegal fishing. Palau’s flagship program to counter overfishing and encourage sustainable development is its National Marine Sanctuary. In October 2015, Palau created one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries that covers 80 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). State revenues from fishing industry permits will decline, and Palau does not have the enforcement ships to ensure its sanctuary is protected. Therefore the government hopes to replace declining income with an increase in tourism by wealthy travelers and will need international support to maintain sovereignty over its fisheries. In this case, proactive public diplomacy can be an effective tool for a small island country like Palau to improve its security. Public diplomacy can focus attention on illegal fishing while engendering support for its culture of conservation, strengthening networks tied to the issue, and influencing behaviors of the U.S. and other regional actors.

Illegal Fishing: An International Problem

Ineffective international management of the Pacific tuna supply, strong consumer demand and weak monitoring of vessels have led to overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and bycatch. Palau can pursue policy action against illegal fishing by constructing and projecting its own strategic narratives to influence foreign audiences. Overfishing has been a significant problem for the Pacific Island region, leading to competition for depleted fish stocks. Furthermore, in some cases, operators of IUU fishing vessels disregard basic labor standards. Consumers across the globe and in Asia in particular have created a high demand for tuna and other prominent fish. Illegal fishing is not a problem that Palau has created, nor can it solve on its own.

International agreements to regulate global fisheries have been slowly implemented and lack adequate monitoring. Recently, Palau became the first Pacific Island Country to sign the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate IUU Fishing (PSMA), which blocks ships suspected of IUU fishing from entering ports. Once in effect, the agreement will build upon other global instruments. Yet, PSMA requires more than 20 more parties to ratify, and implementation necessitates adequate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that are lacking.

Furthermore, the United States has wavered in its support for Pacific fisheries, leaving island states uncertain about their futures. In 2014, the Obama Administration’s Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood fraud released recommendations for comprehensive programs. Now, the United States is reneging on the number of fishing days purchased in the Vessel Day Scheme. This lack of commitment by the United States sends mixed signals to Australia, Japan, China, and other external actors. This should concern others in the region, especially the Compact of Free Association countries.

These issues culminate at a time when the plight of PICs has received significant attention because of climate change. Through its traditional and public diplomacy, Palau has been a leader in the region and on the world stage for small island developing states. While climate change is a central issue for Palau, illegal fishing demands the same attention utilizing public diplomacy. In this way, Palau can attain aid from the public and non-state actors to support conservation, monitoring and enforcement, or employ the public to force action upon the United States and other regional actors.

Proactive Public Diplomacy: Building on Established Campaigns and Partnerships

Public diplomacy is a transparent way for Palau to communicate with foreign and domestic publics to inform and influence. Palau can promote efforts to combat illegal fishing through digital diplomacy, cultural events and forums. Despite its small population of around 21,000 people and budget of about $83 million, Palau’s approach to illegal fishing is multi-faceted and includes partnerships with the United States government and non-government groups. The country needs to improve engagement with the global public on illegal fishing in order to create more awareness and understanding of the problems it faces and develop solutions.

Palau’s regular engagement with other states on illegal fishing can be boosted by public diplomacy.  For example, in March 2015 a group of states held a conference in Guam to discuss the increased illegal fishing in the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; there was strong representation by U.S. embassies as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, governments of Australia, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia. More public involvement outside of government relationships and greater publicity can help showcase regional cooperation.

The Government of Palau has close relationships with private, non-state actors based in the United States made possible by public diplomacy. First, through the Global Ocean Legacy project, the Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners aid Palau to conserve and protect some of the most significant and “unspoiled” ocean environments. Second, Earthjustice, an environmental law group, supplied legal aid to Palau to enable the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act. Third, the small nonprofit SkyTruth uses software, digital maps and public data to help governments like Palau to crack down on IUU fishing. Specifically, they helped to track a Taiwanese ship that was carrying illegal caught tuna and shark fins. This year, in partnership with Google and Oceana, SkyTruth intends to launch the website Global Fishing Watch to enable anyone in the world to track illegal fishermen and empower consumers.

Palau’s active relationships with other state actors involved in illegal fishing, experience with non-government groups leave it well-placed to lead public diplomacy efforts to protect its fisheries.

Creating Effective Messaging against Illegal Fishing

By showcasing its image as a country focused on conservation and tough on illegal fishing, digital diplomacy can help Palau to shape the international policy environment. Traditionally public diplomacy may focus on nation branding, setting countries apart. For Palau, that could complicate partnerships with Pacific neighbors and strain financial and human resources. Rather, the country must balance image promotion, concentrating on the Office of the President, embassies, and local groups with expanding their digital footprint, and coordinating efforts with other PICs and larger regional actors.

Digital diplomacy is becoming an increasingly important tool, even for small countries like Palau. In particular, Twitter diplomacy is a way for Palau’s government to bypass traditional media gatekeepers. Twitter can be part of foreign policy in three stages: the government official or embassy tweets official information; a more tailored stage where officials tweet news articles; and the most personal and advanced stage, where officials engage in debates with their personal opinions. President Remengesau has a relatively new Twitter page with more than 500 followers. Compared to Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama who has more than 11,000 followers on Twitter, there is room for improvement. The Office of the President of Palau has a Facebook page with the Marine Sanctuary Act posted to the top of the page.  Social media enables the government to create discussions and engage on a personal level as opposed to distributing broadcast messages. Both Facebook and Twitter can contribute to a cohesive public diplomacy effort if daily and weekly resources are dedicated. The Digital Diplomacy Coalition illustrates that training diplomats and future leaders in this area can help enable Palau to engage with its domestic and international public to mitigate issues.

Despite moves into social media, Palau has a poor digital footprint which likely results from constraints on the country’s diplomatic resources, including its lack of embassies. The country has embassies in Washington, Manila, Tokyo and Taipei. In particular, its Washington website is outdated despite the “Ambassador” page explaining that the website is meant to be a space for finding current information. Palau’s Ambassador to Washington, Hersey Kyota, is the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps with close to 20 years in the role; with his wide networks and notoriety in Washington, his staff should work toward a better web presence. Instead, President Remengesau is leading the charge for his country, as exemplified in the many awards he has received, and remains the central focus point of the digital diplomacy strategy.

Partnering with other countries to build a strong unified voice can help gain support from the global public with the goal of bolstering the U.S. and others to act. Organizations like the Global Island Partnership, the Pacific Islands Forum and Pacific Islands Development Forum create platforms for advocacy. In particular when island countries can create a coherent message together they will have greater chance of success, such as in their efforts for greater access to climate finance.

To measure public diplomacy progress, the government of Palau can look to a number of metrics. First, it can count the number of domestic and international partnerships; by taking stock of its partnerships with organizations such as The Pew Trusts, it can analyze partners based on quality and find gaps in success. Second, it can follow mentions of illegal fishing from major country outlets to inform its own interventions into online conversations. The topic of illegal fishing may arise more often when there are international meetings or Western organizations are involved. Third, the Office of the President can keep track of its followers on Facebook and Twitter. These platforms have a conversational character and should be used for engagement over retweets, follows and likes. Finally, the government can monitor the attitudes of its citizens and Pacific neighbors.


Illegal fishing impacts the ability of the regional fisheries management organizations as well as local governments to regulate their stocks through conservation measures. If Palau is not able to stop IUU fishing in its EEZ, the new National Marine Sanctuary efforts will be compromised, a loss not restricted to Palau. Luckily, President Tommy Remengesau’s list of accomplishments and the country’s partnerships continues to grow. To complement its conservation efforts and the media attention for climate change, Palau needs international support for monitoring and enforcement of its territory, particularly the new sanctuary, and avenues of funding. Its work with The Pew Trusts and SkyTruth signal that private organizations and citizens are taking the lead; they are able to share the data captured and create best practices publicly more readily than governments. Palau should engage in a more proactive public diplomacy strategy focusing on digital diplomacy and strategic communication in collaboration with its Pacific neighbors. By engaging closely and more publicly with a global audience, Palau can shape the conversation and solutions for illegal fishing in a way that benefits its domestic and regional interests.

Genevieve Neilson is a 2016 Pacific Security Scholar at the Islands Society. She recently completed her M.A. in International Affairs from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. She also holds a Graduate Certificate from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a B.A. (Honors) in International Relations and Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include foreign policy and trade in the Asia-Pacific region, public diplomacy, and the Chinese language.

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Image Credit: US Navy via Flickr CC

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