TOKYO (AP) — Lawmakers in the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau passed a law Thursday to make almost all its coastal waters a marine sanctuary in the latest move to expand ocean protections.
A news release said Palau's president plans to sign the legislation next week. Friday is a national holiday in Palau.
The Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act designates 80 percent of the nation's maritime territory as a fully protected marine reserve in which no extractive activities, such as fishing or mining, can take place.
At 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles), or slightly larger than the U.S. state of California, the sanctuary will be the sixth-largest fully protected marine area in the world.
The measure also seeks to prevent illegal fishing by tightening rules for vessels passing through Palau's waters.
About 20 percent of Palau's waters will be reserved as a domestic fishing zone for local fishermen and small-scale commercial fisheries with limited exports. There will be a five-year transition as the number of commercial licenses issued to foreign commercial fishing vessels will be reduced and phased out.
President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. described the measure as essential.
"We want to lead the way in restoring the health of the ocean for future generations," he said in a statement.
The country created the world's first shark sanctuary in 2009, but until recently had only one patrol boat to help protect its great hammerheads, leopard sharks and more than 130 other species of shark and rays from extinction.
Earlier this year, the government set fire to several vessels caught fishing illegally to underscore its commitment to protecting its seas.
Palau, about 600 miles (970 kilometers) miles east of the Philippines, is one of the world's smallest countries, its 20,000 people scattered across a tropical archipelago of 250 islands that is a biodiversity hotspot.
The Pew Charitable Trusts provided technical support for establishing the shark sanctuary and the Palau National Marine Sanctuary.
New commitments made this year would protect more than 2.5 million square kilometers of the world's ocean territory.
Britain plans to establish the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve in the South Pacific. On Sept. 28, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced plans for a fully protected ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) northeast of his country's North Island.
Earlier this month, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet promised to support efforts by the indigenous Rapa Nui community of Easter Island to create a fully protected marine park.