Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fiji's Sharks: study shows big business and locals are depleting a tourism and natural resource

Following on the accomplishments of island nations like Palau to establish shark sanctuaries, there is a movement developing to do the same in Fiji. While it has not yet reached the point of actual legislation or regulations for consideration by the Fijian government, it would appear to not be a moment too soon either.

According to a study just completed by Dr. Demian Chapman of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, Stony Brook University in New York, shark fishermen are targeting at least 10 species that are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. Included are sharks that make up a large part of Fiji's shark eco-tourism operations which contributes to the islands' tourism base.

Working in consort with the Fiji Fisheries Department, Dr. Chapman, who gained scientific recognition for his research in shark DNA that allowed for the tracking of hammerhead fins back to their place of origin, studied two shark fin traders in Fiji and combined his data with that of other researchers to paint an overall disturbing picture of the shark fin trade between Fiji and Hong Kong.

Three species - blue sharks, oceanic whitetips, and the silky shark were being targeted as bycatch from the tuna fisheries. However, one aspect of the study that was of particular concern was the extant to which local fishermen were involved, catching species more commonly found closer to shore. These are the sharks that divers from around the globe come to Fiji to see and so it represents a sizable lost economic value for the shark eco-tourism operators and the islands as a whole.

"I also observed a number of fins from inshore species. According to traders, these come from the coast of Fiji and are collected by local people who are paid by the dealers for shark fins and sea cucumbers," said Dr. Chapman.

This points to one of the major problems with the shark fin trade. While there is a large industrial fishing component that must be combated, there are also locals involved, merely trying to make a living. Like organized crime or the drug trade, these locals are not paid top dollar for their efforts - that's reserved for those further up in the shark fin distribution food chain - but they are tempted to participate as it could mean food on the table in a tough economy (not every Fiji citizen is employed by or benefits from the tourist trade).

And speaking of those further up the food chain, the amount of product that is being moved through Fiji alone is staggering. As reported in The Fiji Times Online, Dr. Chapman said,
"I estimated the total number of fins present at each dealer by counting the number of fins visible in digital photographs taken onsite. Since most sharks produce four marketable fins (dorsal, two pectoral and lower caudal), I divided the estimated total number of fins by a factor of four to estimate the total number of individual sharks killed. One dealer had approximately 1000 fins drying, which represents at least 250 sharks killed.

"The dealer also had four large freezers full of frozen fins that were impossible to count. The other dealer had three very large piles of dried fins that I estimate contained a total of 10,000-12,000 fins and represented 2500-4000 dead sharks. The dealer indicated that they were exporting this volume on a monthly basis from Nadi International Airport to Hong Kong."

Twenty-five hundred to four thousand sharks each month, potentially coming from Fijian waters. Fiji's shark species and reef ecosystems can not withstand this kind of harvest.

The Fiji Times Online also quoted Ratu Manoa Rasigatale, who is spearheading an awareness campaign for the Coral Reef Alliance and Pew Environment Group to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary, '"It is sad to note from Dr Chapman's assessment that locals are heavily involved in the killing of reef sharks,' said Ratu Manoa, dubbed the Sharkman for his efforts to spread the gospel of shark conservation to all levels of the community in Fiji."

The only upside to a report like this is that it represents the kind of factual data needed to support a drive for establishing a shark sanctuary. No moral arguments about finning, no anecdotal evidence or stories of tradition or folklore; just the cold hard facts. Economic facts. Somebody is making a lot of money and it's not Fiji's everyday citizen; and one of the islands' major economic engines - the tourist trade - is at risk. Hopefully, that should catch the attention of government officials who are willing to look at the long-term future of Fiji's economy, its reefs and the sharks that call those reefs and the surrounding waters home.

Read about the shark fin trade in Fiji in The Fiji Times Online.

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