DAVAO CITY Philippines — The Philippine government on April 8 pressed its long-standing petition for a memorandum of understanding with the Palau government to enable Filipino fishing vessels to operate in Palau waters.

Palau government officials promised to look once more into the Philippine proposal even as one lawmaker said he would file a bill recommending a fisheries agreement between the two countries.

But officials of both countries agreed that Filipino fishing companies could apply for fishing licenses with the Palau government despite the absence of an MOU on fisheries cooperation or maritime boundary agreements.

Officials from the Palau and Philippine government — including representatives of Filipino fishing companies mostly based in General Santos City Cotobato in southern Philippines — met for about an hour-and-a half on April 8 at the Marco Polo Hotel Davao discussing the proposed MOU.

After the meeting Malcolm A. Sarmiento director of the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources; told the Journal that once signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation between the two countries “Will provide opportunities for our Filipino fishing operators specifically the tuna long liners and tuna purseiners to operate within Palau waters under licenses. So this arrangement would have to be covered by a memorandum of agreement or memorandum of understanding to provide protection and to regulate the activities that will be done there.”

He said aside from fishing access the MOU will also cover other areas of cooperation such as aquaculture mariculture exchange of experts “and maybe joint efforts in combating illegal unregulated and unreported fishing or IUU by unregistered fishing vessels … for the preservation of our marine resources.”

The proposed fisheries cooperation agreement according to Joseph Anthony A. Reyes vice consul of the Philippine embassy in Palau; has been pending for six years. He added that the Philippine fishing fleet for tuna “is the largest in the world.”

In an exclusive interview with the Journal Vernice Stefano program manager of the Palau Automated Land and Resource Information System under the Ministry of Resources and Development; said her government lacked resources and manpower to review the proposed MOU.

“The same people reviewing MOU’s are also tasked with other national priorities so the focus now is to get our maritime boundary delimitation project squared away with the [Federated States of Micronesia]. And we have been tasked to get that completed this summer by three Micronesian presidents [for] FSM Palau and [Marshall Islands]. It’s definitely a big problem for the technical team that does that [reviewing the MOU].”

Stefano said that the Palau government is also grappling with other issues such as the Continental Shelf limits which sets exclusive economic zones and maritime boundaries. The deadline for settling this issue is 2009 according to Reyes.

“The MOU has been overshadowed by maritime boundary and Continental Shelf [limit] issues. They [the Palau government] want to widen their EEZ which at present is 200 nautical miles from the baseline. Those are pressing matters to them ” he told the Journal.

Sarmiento added there is no maritime boundary agreement as yet between the countries which hampers the pursuit of fishing operations by Filipino fishing vessels in Palau waters.

“There is a portion in the Pacific where the boundaries are not clearly delineated. And it would be for the interest of the Philippines and Palau to clearly define that area. That still has to be done with the [Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs] taking the lead.”

But he said the officials of both governments agreed during the meeting that the absence of maritime boundaries agreement should not be an obstacle to any fishing agreement. “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows fishing agreements between nations which have disputes on [maritime] boundaries. The UNCLAWS says simple fishing agreements can be entered into [by the disputing countries].”

Sen. Alfonso N. Diaz chairman of the Committee on Resources Commerce Trade and Development of the Palau Congress; said that due to the absence of a maritime boundary agreement between Palau and the Philippines “[the Filipino fishing vessels] sometimes fish into our EEZ without knowing it.”

He said he would sponsor a bill to adopt a permanent fishing agreement between both countries.

Sarmiento said that Filipinos would benefit from the MOU because it would cover smaller fishing boats like the pump boats operated by marginal fishermen.

During the meeting Billy Kuartei chief of staff to President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr.; promised Philippine government officials a review of the MOU.

Stefano expressed optimism that Filipino fishing companies would be allowed to operate in Palau waters despite the absence of an MOU between both countries. “I know we’ve issued fishing licenses with private companies and I think there are fisheries agreements that are signed every five years and that gets ratified by the Congress.” She said those fisheries agreements were signed between private foreign fishing companies and the Ministry of Resources and Development.

She said during the meeting a number of Filipino fishing companies asked her the status of their fishery agreements.

Stefano said regarding the proposed MOU “we will definitely go back and review the MOU and make sure we have the same objectives least we know who to talk to if we have questions to review certain parts of the MOU.” MBJ