Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fiji considers sanctuary designation

Fiji’s reputation as a leader in marine conservation may be enhanced if a proposal made by the Ministry of Primary Industries’ Department of Fisheries and Forests advances next month. The agency is considering measures that would ban the commercial fishing and trade of sharks and their parts, including fins. The proposal is being drafted, and if it advances in the Cabinet, new legislation could be in place before year’s end.

The government has the support of traditional leaders, as well as the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) and the Pew Environment Group, nonprofit organizations that last month launched a campaign to raise community awareness about the importance of sharks in Fiji.

“A national shark sanctuary in Fiji would be a huge victory for these animals,” said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group. “This action would close down a major hub in the Pacific for the trafficking of fins and highlight Fiji as home to the world’s second-largest shark sanctuary.”

The proposed Fiji National Shark Sanctuary, encompassing the country’s 1.3-million-square-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone, would be the first of its kind in Melanesia. It is modeled after similar conservation measures in the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, and Tokelau.

According to Fisheries Department annual reports, the country’s exports in 2003 were 180 metric tons of shark products. Most of Fiji’s shark fins are exported. “We don’t eat shark,” said Ratu Lalabalavu, who has expressed support for a national shark sanctuary in his capacity as the traditional leader of the Tovata Confederacy. “We feel that we are doing justice to something that is very much part of our life and our history in protecting sharks.” The heads of the Burebasaga Confederacy and Kubuna Confederacy also support the designation of Fijian waters for shark conservation.
“The Fijian people have a long history of supporting locally managed marine areas,” said Rick MacPherson, conservation programs director at CORAL. “This strong cultural connection to the reefs makes our job easier as we work alongside the Fijian community to develop an effective sanctuary for sharks that benefits both the marine ecosystem and the people who rely on it. This shark movement is an excellent opportunity for us to use our resources to unite a nation to protect marine ecosystems.”

Sharks are significant to the health of coral reefs. “A reef without sharks is a sick reef,” said Demian Chapman, PhD, a shark scientist at Stony Brook University in New York, who in March provided an assessment of the shark fin trade for fisheries officials in Fiji’s capital, Suva. As top ocean predators, sharks regulate the populations of prey species and potentially the overall health of the ocean, according to Chapman. Falling populations of these animals might even lead to general coral reef decline. “There is a clear empirical association between thriving shark populations and healthy coral reef ecosystems,” he said.

Chapman found that the shark fin trade in Suva includes the sale of thousands of fins from sharks that are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, such as scalloped hammerhead (Endangered) and silky, blacktip reef, and bull sharks (all Near Threatened). His assessment also found trade in fins from shark species that live and breed on the reef, and are important for ecotourism.

Earlier this year, the Australian Institute for Marine Studies found that reef sharks in Palau contribute nearly US$18 million annually to the national economy through diving and associated tourism activities. A similar analysis in French Polynesia found that an individual lemon shark has a lifetime value of more than US$300,000, a significantly higher figure than if it had been caught for its fins. “A living shark is worth far more than a dead shark,” said Rand.

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