for National Geographic News
Johnson Toriboing announced the creation of a shark haven without commercial fishing during an address before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
"I believe the physical well-being and beauty of sharks reflects the well-being of the ocean," Toriboing told reporters at a news conference.
"It is my honor and opportunity to tell the world to join me to protect these species, which are on the brink of extinction."
Sharks are increasingly under threat as the demand for shark-fin soup—a delicacy in many Asian countries—has risen worldwide.
"The need to save the ocean and save sharks far outweighs the need to enjoy bowls of soup," Toriboing said.
Located roughly 500 miles (805 kilometers) east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean, Palau is made up of about 200 small islands and is one of the world's smallest and youngest nations. (See map.)
But what it lacks in land, Palau makes up for in water: Its territorial waters span more than 230,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers)—an area about the size of France.
All of that water is now safe harbor for sharks.
"Palau has taken the ultimate step toward shark protection. There's no clearer way of protecting sharks," said Matt Rand, director of the global shark conservation campaign at the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Environment Group, which worked with Palau officials to create the sanctuary.
However, enforcement could be a problem for the tiny island republic, Palauian president Toriboing admitted.
Palau will heavily fine boats caught with sharks or shark parts on board, but the country has only one patrol boat to monitor its large expanse of water.
Still shark conservationists hailed the sanctuary's establishment as an important step in the right direction.
"It's fantastic news," said National Geographic marine ecologist Enric Sala.
"This is a pioneering move by Palau that shows how well they understand the role of every species in the marine ecosystem."
(The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Jill Hepp, a marine conservationist at the nonprofit WWF, hopes other countries will follow Palau's lead.
"There's a pretty dismal lack of protection for sharks, even though they're a key species in the oceans' waters," Hepp said.
"This could really help raise the profile of the issue."
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