Thursday, April 12, 2012

Kiribati Must Protect Sharks

Guest Blog
by Ben Namakin

Sharks are in trouble and they must be protected. We, I-Kiribati People, believe that we are ocean people as we depend so much on our ocean resources for our very existence, and traditional marine conservation practices is very much part of our Kiribati culture. If we are today exploiting sharks by overfishing them for their fins, then we lose part of our custom which makes us who we are, Ocean People.

According to the Pew Environment Group, the decline in shark populations can lead to unpredictable consequences, including the collapse of important fisheries. Impacts from the loss of sharks can be felt throughout the entire system. In coral reef ecosystems, such as those in the Caribbean and the Pacific, corals depend on the herbivorous fish such as the parrot fish to eat algae and provide space for corals to settle and grow. When sharks are removed from the system, the larger fish which feed on herbivorous fish increase in abundance. Without the smaller fish to eat the algae, corals can no longer compete for space. As a result, the ecosystem switches to an algae-dominated system, lacking the diversity and abundance of marine species (such as reef species we depend on for our daily food) once found within the coral reef ecosystem.

As the science says, sharks inhabited the oceans 200 million years before dinosaurs appeared. But now, just 50 years after industrialized fishing began, many of these vulnerable species may not survive this century. Sharks are ancient species that deserves safeguarding.

Sharks fins have been considered one of the most valuable food items in the world, reaching prices as high as US$2,640 per kg. The value of shark fins has increased in recent years with the economic growth in China, and this growth is a major factor in the commercial exploitation of sharks worldwide (Clarke et al. 2006). A recent study estimates that as many as 73 million sharks have been killed in a single year to supply the fin trade, actual catches may be much higher.

I am very concerned because sharks play an important role in the ecosystem and they are an important component in the protection of coral reefs.

I have no doubt this is an issue that is close to the heart of the Kiribati people and government leaders. As an independent small nation, Kiribati has been recognized internationally for being outspoken on the issue of climate change.

In a recent interview with The Fiji Times, the newly crowned Miss South Pacific of Fiji, Miss Rabukawaqa said shark conservation was an issue that needed to be highlighted so there was an understanding of the importance of this creature to the ocean ecological system. Miss South Pacific is also showing good leadership in driving this issue amongst her fellow Pacific Islanders and I am grateful for this.

We must act now for this is not too late. We have neighboring islands in the region that are protecting sharks in their water. Last year the Republic of Palau declared its waters to be a shark sanctuary and banned commercial shark fishing, in their EEZ. Following Palau footsteps, Guam and the Northern Marianas (CNMI) passed a bill in banning the shark trade.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is introducing a resolution this year to recognize the important role that sharks, rays, dolphins, and whales play in the ocean’s ecosystem, as well as a significant part of FSM’s cultural heritage and tourism throughout the FSM. Recently, the Marshall Islands have joined Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas and Tokelau in delivering the gold standard of protection for ensuring shark survival by creating a shark sanctuary.

I applaud the Republic of the Marshall Islands that is now home to the world’s largest shark sanctuary. the Marshallese parliament, unanimously passed legislation in October 2011 that ends commercial fishing of sharks in all 1,990,530 square kilometers (768,547 square miles) of the central Pacific country’s waters, an ocean area four times the landmass of California.

I hope that the Republic of Kiribati will join with other Micronesian leaders to make good on their collective promise of a regional sanctuary. This should be amongst the priorities for Kiribati in the first house of assembly in April this year.

Kiribati stretches across the western Pacific and includes the Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands.  Ben Namakin lives in Tarawa, the capital.  Follow him on Micronesia Shark Defenders.

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