|More photos from the public hearing on Shark Defenders Flickr.|
The vocal shark defenders from tourism operators, marine researchers, divers, students and lovers of the deep and the wonders in it for a shark sanctuary across Fiji's vast stretch of 1.2 million-square-kilometre blue, and the tuna anglers, for non-sanctuary waters to fish in.
The consultation last Wednesday, organised in Suva by the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests, was held to get public and stakeholder feedback on proposed legislation to ensure the protection of sharks.
Backed by the former director of fisheries, Maciu Lagibalavu, the tuna boat operators dug in for a fight following Cabinet's decision to return the draft paper submitted to it by the ministry for further consultation.
"Don't get us wrong, we are for a shark sanctuary, a partial one," said Russell Dunham, group business director of the Fiji Tuna Boat Owners Association.
"We have no interest in catching sharks.
"But we will catch sharks, whether we like it or not, as by-catch. Do not blame long-line fishermen for the decline in sharks, just control inshore fishing."
Mr Dunham, of Fiji Fish Marketing Group Limited, said making Fiji's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) a shark sanctuary was unnecessary and suggested shark sanctuaries be identified instead of a national ban on shark fishing
He said there was no control of inshore fishermen who were exploiting marine stocks, including coastal sharks.
Shark advocates said all sharks inshore and oceanic faced the threat of extinction because of overfishing and rejected the proposal from the tuna operators, saying a partial ban would leave loopholes that fishermen could exploit.
Marine researcher Helen Sykes said a total ban on shark fishing would ensure their protection and safeguard the marine ecosystem.
The ministry, in its presentation, said it had documentation of the overfishing of shark species, in national and international waters. Sharks, it said, are being harvested at an unprecedented rate estimated at 73 million sharks around the world annually to support the shark fin trade.
Fiji has 11 local shark species and 58 others which have been discovered or "landed in Fiji". More than half of all species spend all of or much of their life cycle within Fiji's EEZ.
The ministry said the export of shark fins rose sharply between 1998 and 2003, indicating a shift from a by-catch fishery towards a targeted shark fishing industry.
The decline in exports since 2008 may represent the adverse impacts shark fishing has already had on populations of sharks in Fiji waters.
Data provided by the ministry showed that tuna long-liner fleet caught around 1800 sharks in 2010 but figures based on the long-liner fleets alone, it stressed, do not capture the shark fins now being brought in by small-scale artisanal fishermen.
It said shark catches are steadily rising, even though the weight of shark fin exports is dropping, indicating that the sharks being caught are smaller in size than in the past. This, it said, showed a decline in the number of larger sharks.
The annual income to Fiji through shark fin trading averages at $8million annually, with a huge increase in export price for direct intact shark fin from $HK377.12 ($F87.39) per kilogram in 2001 to $HK678.30 ($F157.19) in 2011.
In its justification for the protection of sharks, the ministry said sharks which are critical to maintaining the balance of marine eco-systems must be considered a non-renewable resource and that damage caused through removal is irreversible.
They must be saved to maintain biodiversity and other key sectors which rely on them.
The ministry warned the extinction of sharks would have a detrimental effect on health and fisheries productivity of coral reefs and lead to the collapse of other high-value industries.
Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association chief executive officer Michael Wong said his members supported a total ban on shark fishing.
"We have all the reasons to protect them. Sharks add value to tourism," he said.
Mr Lagibalavu, a spokesman for the Offloaders Association and Gold Hold Fiji Limited, which exports up to an estimated 65 per cent of tuna by-catch, said a shark sanctuary would affect the tuna industry.
"Fijian youths line up for jobs on tuna boats every day. These jobs will be lost," he said.
To this, the shark advocates said a national sanctuary in itself would provide jobs for those looking for work in a "dying tuna industry".
As a $75million income-earner for Fiji in 2010, a figure arrived at in a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Western Australia, shark campaigners said Fiji stood to gain more than just tourist dollars from a national sanctuary.
The face of sharks in Fiji, Manoa Rasigatale, said indigenous people must not forget their cultural ties to the ocean's apex predator.
Outspoken campaigner Teddy Fong said he was disappointed the arguments were based on economics.
"It's not about the economics, it's about saving our eco-system. It is that simple," he said.
"Tuna is already scarce, if the tuna industry dies, then so be it. But without the sharks, we lose everything.
"Sharks are too important."
As the world celebrated World Tuna Day declared last year for May 2 by Pacific Island countries, whose last-remaining healthy stocks of tuna are under greater pressure than ever as industrial fishing fleets move in to catch them the sharks stole the show in this corner of the Pacific.
That special day recognises that to have healthy populations of tuna for the future, we need to make efforts now to end overfishing and ensure that the gear used on them doesn't imperil other ocean life.
The message was clear save the sharks or we'll lose more than the dwindling stock of tuna in our waters.
Printed in The Fiji Times on Monday, May 7, 2012.