Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oceanic Whitetip Sharks in Fiji: island cultures revere a threatened pelagic predator

The oceanic whitetip shark is a beautiful but feared shark. A feared shark because of its reputation gained during World War II for being attracted to the sounds of sinking ships and then, what with blood in the water, attacking sailors floating in the water. In Jaws, Quint's fictional monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis was based on the real account of the ship's sinking. And, in truth, the oceanic whitetip was responsible for a number of sailor's deaths - along with battle injuries, starvation, and sea water poisoning taking its toll.

However, the fact is that the oceanic whitetip is a beautiful, pelagic or open-ocean shark and like many other shark species, its numbers have been in severe decline due to commercial fishing and bycatch. The IUCN has listed the species as vulnerable to extinction and its situation is not holding steady or improving by any means.

An article ran recently in the The Fiji Times Online in support of the oceanic whitetip. Fiji has several species of shark in relatively fair abundance in and about its reefs and the oceanic whitetip is one that will make an occasional appearance, approaching reefs on narrow continental shelves near deep water. Also, Fiji has a cultural history with several Fijian island peoples that revolve around sharks as mythical, even god-like, creatures. Several legends specifically involve oceanic whitetips and have them serving as protectors not predators.

The Fiji Times reported that Fijian "
shark campaigner Manoa Rasigatale says the people of [the Fiji island of] Rukua, like elsewhere in Fiji where the shark is revered as a totem and protector, believe the oceanic whitetip and the rest of the species should be saved.

'Saving it is saving their tradition and their marine environment. It is as simple as that. Take away the shark and they lose their traditional tie to it and the story that has been passed on from one generation to another,' says Mr Rasigatale."

It's an interesting opposing juxtaposition to the Asian cultural history that defends the consumption of shark fin soup. Whose culture has a better right to predominate? One that promotes reverence of the shark or one that promotes its consumption?

Although Fiji has strict regulations regarding shark fishing, a movement is in the beginning stages with a shark sanctuary for the entire island chain as its ultimate goal. The Pew Environment Group and the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) are working with the Fijian government to make the sanctuary a reality.

Commendable as it may be, a shark sanctuary may not be enough to ultimately protect the oceanic whitetip as it is a long range nomad. That means considerable time spent outside of sanctuary boundaries, exposed to commercial fishing - whether deliberate or as accidental bycatch - in international waters.

The Fiji Times Online article is an interesting read both with regards to how the shark is entwined with the island's culture and identifying the specific fishing threats to the oceanic whitetip to which the island nation and supporting conservation groups are trying to address.

The Fiji Times Online


DaShark said...

Nice story.

My staff from Rukua however inform me that the species associated with the Shark god is the humble Reef Whitetip that is ubiquitous on their reefs - the villagers would not know of OWTs if their life depended on it.

RTSea said...

Interesting, Mike. Well, maybe Ilaitia Turgabeci of the Fiji Times got some facts wrong. Oceanic whiteip, whitetip reef shark - big difference. But the key thing is that Asia isn't the only culture that has a history with sharks. Although I much prefer Fiji's approach.