Thursday, February 3, 2011

Guam's Dwindling Shark Population: new study supports need for protective legislation

Late last month, I ran a post on the efforts in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to initiate anti-shark fin legislation. Just a few days later, The Commonwealth of the Northern Marina Islands (CNMI) succeeded in passing the legislation, signed by Governor Fitial, and attention turned to Guam.

A public hearing was held this past Tuesday in Guam and opposition leaders, mainly in the form of fisherman represented by the Fishermen's Cooperative Association of Guam, made their case that the legislation was punitive to the fishermen and unnecessary. The fishermen take the position that there are more sharks in Guam than ever before and in no signs of disappearing.

Unfortunately, that position was challenged by the results of a scientific study conducted over a 12-month period that most decidedly showed that the number of sharks in Guam are at dangerously low levels compared to other nearby areas. By placing baited remote underwater video stations (BRUVs) at 75 different locations, only 10 sharks (mostly black tip reef sharks) were counted, which equates to 0.13 sharks per hour of footage according to Dr. Jenny McIlwain in her sworn testimony at the hearing.

Just 12 miles south of Guam, at Galvez Bank, 22 sharks were recorded - equating to 10 times the Guam average. Dr. McIlwain also pointed out that when comparing studies using the same techniques in Australia in areas where sharks were heavily commercially fished, Guam's numbers were still 4 times less.

The study was a joint venture of the Universities of Guam and Western Australia, and was funded by NOAA's Coral Reef Initiative. Stefanie Brendl of WildAid, in written testimony, stressed the importance of Guam's passage of this legislation. It represents a tropical Pacific movement to protect sharks that started in Hawaii. With more island nations taking action to prohibit shark finning in local waters, combined with international efforts, the shark finning industry - legal or otherwise - will be constantly on the move and finding fewer and fewer safe harbors to operate from.

Before final passage of the legislation, the Guam government might make some concessions to those fishermen who truly subsist from a limited shark catch. But given the scientific evidence presented at the hearing, it is difficult to conceive of any acceptable catch level that would not push the last remaining sharks of Guam toward extinction.
Read about the public hearing in the Marianas Variety.

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