Monday, May 9, 2011

Shark Protection Reflections from French Polynesia

Guest Blog
by Christelle Holler-Miet

Christelle and Rodolphe Holler
I have always been drawn to the ocean, but I never really got to love her until I moved to the South Pacific. You see, I grew up a city girl in Europe and the United States, and back in those days I would not think of the sea on a daily basis like I do now. My experiences back then were limited to life in the city, and I didn’t have the opportunity to know the ocean the way I do now.

I look back on those days and realize how different I am today – and scuba diving had a big role to play in that change. I’ve always been one to follow my dreams and a number of years ago (who’s counting how many?), my interest in scuba diving took me for a year-long tour of the South Pacific.

I was very excited about discovering dream-like islands, wonderful cultures, and seeing the crystal clear hues of a tropical lagoon for the very first time. My guide on this journey was Rodolphe, my dive instructor. He took me snorkeling and diving with beautiful tropical fish I had only seen in fish tanks and books.

Gray Reef Shark.  Photo: Rodolphe Holler, Tahiti Private Expeditions.
My first shark encounter happened during a snorkel in the Loyalty Islands, about 100 km off the mainland of New Caledonia. I was swimming amongst coral heads in about one meter of water when I saw a blacktip reef shark a few feet away from me. Instantaneous primitive fear was my immediate reaction. Like a seal trying to escape a great white, I leapt out of the water onto the closest coral head and stood waiting for the two-foot shark to swim by and leave the area.

Today when I think back on that day, very memorable indeed, I can’t help laughing! I have been diving in the South Pacific for over a decade and after thousands of dives I have gotten to know these incredible animals very well. That baby shark had probably been much more afraid of me, than I of him!

Rodolphe, now my husband, and I never went back to live in our native country, France. We stayed in the Pacific and eventually settled in Tahiti and her islands in French Polynesia. Our adopted country is made of 1% land (118 islands spread over a territory as large as Western Europe) and 99% ocean.

Unfortunately, despite some of the best diving in the world, including being able to boast of some of the Pacific’s healthiest shark populations, in the early 2000s, a few Asian traders introduced the shark fin industry to French Polynesia. The traders started touring around the islands, focusing on the remote atolls where making a living is a daily struggle and where most of the population lives on fishing. They told the islanders how easy it was to catch sharks on coral reefs, that there was a huge demand for shark fins in Asia, and that finning was much more lucrative than any other type of fishing.

Gray Reef Shark.  Photo: Rodolphe Holler, Tahiti Private Expeditions.
Prior to this the fishermen in Tahiti had never thought much about catching sharks. Sharks are usually not considered food and in ancient Polynesian legends they were protectors. Sharks were not feared by humans or hunted for meat. Yet faced with the opportunity to make a huge profit in a very short amount of time, many families started finning and sold the fins to the Asian traders when they returned. Of course, the larger the shark caught, the rarer the species, and thus the higher the price for the fins.

At the same time, Rodolphe and I would regularly see old rusted Asian fishing vessels refueling at the main port of Papeete. The ships had hundreds of shark fins spread out on the main dock. Drying in the sun, the fins were a sign of a booming Tahitian finning industry. And this was all legal, no laws were being broken.

It became obvious to those of us in French Polynesia who make a living from the ocean that the situation was turning sour. Targeting sharks by the hundreds and thousands solely for their fins certainly did not bode well.

Then one day in 2003, something happened that convinced Rodolphe and me that the shark fishing going on in French Polynesia was totally unacceptable. Rodolphe was leading a dive in Rangiroa, one of the top shark destinations worldwide, just north of the main island of Tahiti. During the dive he heard a huge bang. The divers looked around and couldn’t figure out where the sound had come from, but within a minute, they group realized what was going on. A 2-meter silky shark, finless, was slowing sinking into the ocean, agonizing and alive. Unable to swim, the shark sank to the bottom where the only thing greeting it was a slow painful death.

Blacktip Reef Shark.  Photo: Rodolphe Holler, Tahiti Private Expeditions.
This came as a huge trauma, but it led to action. An article was published in the local newspaper and a group formed to bring awareness to fishermen and politicians. In the local dive shops and café terraces, sharks became the most popular topic of discussion.

It is really difficult in a country made mostly of ocean to convince politicians that banning shark fishing is a good thing for the economy. A large number of people rely on fishing as their living, and shark fins were providing much needed income for families. But at what cost was this income derived? Sharks are slow growing, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, and produce few young.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark.  Photo: Rodolphe Holler, Tahiti Private Expeditions.
After only a few years of a targeted fishery, sharks had disappeared from reefs where they had once been plentiful. French Polynesia was on pace to lose her sharks and something had to be done. After a long fight, with signature petitions flying around and with the support of a non-profit organization in France called Longitude 181, a bill banning the export and fishing of shark was passed and signed in 2006.

Local politicians eventually came to understand that making shark conservation a priority would serve the economy and culture of French Polynesia better over the long term. The other option provided a larger short term gain, but it was not sustainable. Among the world of divers, Tahiti and her islands are famous for being a great destination with amazing shark encounters. Although this was not communicated outside at the time, this was major unprecedented achievement worldwide and awesome news for sharks.

Sicklefin Lemon Shark.  Photo: Rodolphe Holler, Tahiti Private Expeditions.
Today Rodolphe and I work with luxury private yachts. The owners of these ships have traveled the world, dived the most amazing areas of the ocean and think our country is among the best places they have been to due to its incredible varied wildlife and how easy it is to encounter up to 15 shark species during a single trip. Every time one of us or our guides are aboard a yacht, a lecture is held on the local marine wildlife with an important part on demystifying sharks and explaining the major role they play in our eco-system.

Today, we do not see these Asian boats anymore, fishermen are back to their normal traditional fishing activities, divers are delighted to see sharks and the local tourism industry owes a lot to these beautiful fish.

Silvertip Shark.  Photo: Rodolphe Holler, Tahiti Private Expeditions.
We all have a role to play in protecting the world’s sharks. We are very proud to have been part of French Polynesia’s protections and we truly hope more and more countries will join in shark conservation very soon. We have watched the recent shark conservation measures in Palau, Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands and we are excited that other nations and territories are considering shark protections, too.

Christelle Holler-Miet lives in Moorea, French Polynesia with her husband Rodolphe. She is a consultant in the luxury private yacht industry and an avid diver.


Unknown said...

Good news at last! It’s nice to hear that an hopeless situation can be turned around. If fining can be stopped in one part of the world, it can be stopped everywhere! There is hope! said...

What an amazing service to Afghanistan after all those problems in the country still they provided me, my desired car at my door steps! definitely is the best!

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