Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fiji Times: Safe by my brother

UNDER the fast-flowing currents of the Somosomo Strait, sharks roam free happily.

They do not fear the two-legged predators who come from land and brought their world population after 415 million years of existence to the brink of extinction.

From the depth of the darkness of this stretch to the light blue waters closer to the coastlines in Cakaudrove, they feel free to hunt the reefs for food, free to rule the seas and maintaining its life cycle as the top-of-the-food-chain predator.

This is their home, home of Dakuwaqa, the ancient shark god, protector of the paramount chief of the province, the Tui Cakau.

The waters of Somosomo Strait have been the backyard of this king of the seas, feared, captivating and mystifying.

His home, Benau - an island which closer to Vanua Levu than Taveuni, home of the Tui Cakau - sits in this strait.

Benau is among evidence of a relationship between the shark and Fiji, in this case the people of the mataqali Ai Sokula, the chiefly bloodline of the Tui Cakau, who legend has it was a twin of Dakuwaqa.

When the twins were born, they were put in a basket made of leaves and left to drift at sea. One turned into a shark, the other was rescued by the people of the Ai Sokula. They returned to land with this child from the sea, escorted by the shark god who promised to protect his brother and his people.

The people of the Ai Sokula embraced the child as their chief and today Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, the current Tui Cakau, has given his support to a campaign to protect sharks and push for legislation to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary.

His gonedau (traditional fishermen) are originally from Rukua in Beqa. They visited Somosomo when they heard news of the twins' birth because they also believed in a shark god called Gone Mai Wai (child from the sea).

Today, these gonedau make up the mataqali Benau in Somosomo.

Moved by the Pew Environmental Group for shark sanctuaries around the world as their numbers drop drastically - estimated at 73 million killings annually - campaigners are racing against time to create awareness and safeguard the guardian of the reefs on which we depend on for our survival.

Without the sharks, the middle predators will take control, feeding on smaller fish that live off the micro organisms that attack and smother the coral.

The death of the coral, says leading shark conservation campaigner Manoa Rasigatale, will mean the death of the islands.

"We must act now to save the future for our children. The existence of the sharks ensures a balance in the life cycle that sustains our world. The shark is our friend. Our world is still here because sharks survived the ages," he says.

"The dinosaurs disappeared off the face of the planet after appearing 180 million years in the wake of the sharks. Our relationship with the shark is an ancient one, one based on veiyalayalati (agreement) that either will look after their own habitat - man on land, shark in water."

The overfishing of sharks for their fins, meat and by-products has driven their population down in most parts of the world. While it is stable in our islands, Mr Rasigatale - Fiji's sharkman - says we must act quickly.

With the help of The Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), and the Ministry of Fisheries which is holding consultation and drawing up proposals on permanent shark protection, the sharkman and Pew hope Fiji follows the island of Palau, which declared the world's first national shark sanctuary.

That led to other shark sanctuaries in other states such as the Maldives, Guam, Saipan, Honduras and the Bahamas.

Fiji is now poised to lead the region as the first Melanesian nation to enact similar full shark protection.

"Our relationship with the shark is unique, especially the people of Cakaudrove, Rukua in Beqa, Yanuca in Serua and Kadavu. All their legends involve the shark and his promise to protect them. It is now our turn to do our part," he says.

The people of Cakaudrove have a lot of respect for the sharks. The sharks accompany their paramount chief when he is out at sea, escorting his boat as a naval fleet would a flagship.

And they patrol the waters off Somosomo in unison when he dies. This was evident during the traditional funeral rites of the last four holders of the Tui Cakau title - Ratu Josefa Lalabalavu, Ratu Ratavo Lalabalavu, Ratu Penaia Ganilau and Ratu Glanville Lalabalavu.

Metres from the seawall, they cruised up and down alongside the village green, as guards would for their king. This was captured in a Fiji Times photograph when Ratu Penaia's body lay in state in Somosomo in 1993.

"It's a phenomenon, a relationship steeped in mana and sacred. The sharks protect these people when they are at sea. They are not bitten, unless they have offended the vanua."

In 2002, while transporting 11 islanders from Vuna to Vatuvara, a boat capsized in treacherous seas. Nine people died, two survived.

They were the boat captain - Umu Vulakoro from Yacata, a subject of the Tui Cakau - and a man from Kadavu, whose link with the shark god stems from a promise Dakuawaqa made to the people of Kadavu when he lost a challenge to the guardian of the reef at the Naceva bay, an octopus called Bakaniceva.

In a documented interview in Fijian with the sharkman, Mr Vulakoro tells of the horror of losing his passengers as they battled the waves to stay alive.

They prayed to God to save them and in desperation yelled out across the sea that threatened to engulf them for help from their ancient friend.

Then out of the water, a great white shape appeared and pushed them across the waves. Tired and exhausted, Mr Vulakoro and the Kadavuan were taken close to land and thrown on to a reef.

They lived to tell their story and still travel the seas where the shark god is said to roam.

"These two men had links to the shark. In their moment of desperation, their prayers were answered. It is no coincidence, it is an understanding that we must respect and continue. Conservation is not a new thing. Our ancestors practised it to control fish stocks for their future, we must also for ours.

"The sharks keep the marine life cycle intact, they keep our reefs healthy, they bring in the tourists and their dollars and they ensure our sustainability.

"The world can't do without them, certainly not we in Fiji."

Ratu Naiqama's decision to protect the sharks in the waters of his jurisdiction is really the continuation of what his ancestors have done.

From the tiny island of Benau to the borders of Cakaudrove, the sharks have a home. The reefs remain full of life and the people feel safer in the water with friends they are helping in their time of need.

Kubuna, Burebasaga and Kadavu have also offered their support and protection in their waters.

The sharkman is happy.

After sailing the Pacific Ocean on the historic double-hulled Uto Ni Yalo last year in the wake of our ancestors who journeyed from island to island, nation to nation, finding common ground between cultures and languages, the sharks have taught him a simple lesson.

Without them, we'd be just like the dinosaurs.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

* Next Monday: Around the world in shark time.

Published in the Fiji Times on Monday, July 25, 2011

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