Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tiny State Big on Shark Protections

Angelo Villagomez with confiscated oceanic whitetip shark fins
An hour before the Pacific Islands Forum's opening feast, hundreds of shark fins were hauled out for display.

The fins, a costly and controversial delicacy, made it nowhere near a dinner plate. As leaders from Pacific nations looked on, thousands of dollars worth of fins were thrown into the waters off Majuro, the Marshalls Islands capital.

"They either burn them or throw them out to sea," said shark expert and Pew Environment Group conservationist Angelo Villagomez, who emptied two large sacks of crudely sawn-off fins.

It was a gesture which underscored the tiny island state's ambitious commitment to ban commercial shark fishing across its massive exclusive economic zone. The Marshalls are shark-infested, and proud of it. No sharks can be caught or sold.

Luke Warwick at the Majuro Airport
On arriving in Majuro, a rectangular-shaped atoll halfway between Hawaii and Australia, visitors are greeted with large billboards of sharks, reminding them that the country has one of the largest shark sanctuaries in the world - nearly nine times the size of New Zealand.

New Zealand provides some surveillance of fishing boats in the region, and the Marshalls are likely to ask for more help with monitoring.

Marshall Islands Vice-President Tony de Brum helped to create the sanctuary two years ago.

"We are already seeing remarkable changes in our shoreline because of much more shark activity," he said.

"We get more tourists that want to go play with the sharks than we have tourists running away from sharks."

Few people appeared to be swimming around Majuro, but locals said this was not because of a fear of sharks, but because the atoll had a poor waste-water system.

The number of tourists visiting the myriad atolls and islands is minuscule - it is the fifth-least-visited country in the world. But those who do make the expensive trip - usually from Honolulu - come for the diving.

Mr Villagomez, who is based in Washington, said the Pacific was leading the world on shark protection. All purse seine boats had observers, and any shark bycatch had to be thrown away.

The fins thrown into Majuro harbour on Tuesday were seized from a Taiwanese vessel in February. It was fined $125,000. They were sliced from hammerheads, blue sharks, makos, and an oceanic white-tip - believed to be the most endangered shark in the world.

Published in The New Zealand Herald on September 5, 2013.

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