by Arthur Sokimi
On September 14, 180 countries, including Fiji and five other Pacific island countries, will begin enforcing historic shark protections agreed to at a meeting in March 2013 of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Now Fiji will no longer allow the import or export of manta rays, oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and hammerhead sharks unless their parts can be shown to have been caught legally from a sustainable source.
Shark conservation is not new to Fijians. We have a deep respect for sharks, and it is taboo to eat them in many parts of the country. Furthermore, scientific studies have informed us that sharks perform a vital role in the ecosystem, as predators that help maintain healthy ocean ecosystems.
Proving the sustainability of these species in order to go ahead with fishing them will not be routine. It will require significant public consultation, and the fishing industry must fund scientific studies and stock assessments to determine that international trade will not further harm shark populations.
Enforcement of the new measures will be key. Enforcement officers in Nadi and Suva have been trained by Dr. Demian Chapman of Stony Brook University in New York and can now easily and quickly identify the fins of oceanic whitetips and hammerhead sharks, as well as the gill plates of manta rays. Without a permit to show that these species were obtained legally from a sustainable source, the assumption will be that they were obtained illegally and enforcement can take place.
Earlier this year in Nadi, the Department of Environment, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Coral Reef Alliance co-hosted a CITES implementation workshop for the new shark listings, which was attended by government officials and scientists from Australia, Kiribati, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Presenters from Germany, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the United States also attended to share their expertise.
The workshop allowed me to meet people from across the Pacific, listen to them, and learn about the issues they face in their own countries. As a group, we realized that the challenges we face as individual countries we also confront as a region. I was happy to see a sense of teamwork going forward in the Pacific to correctly implement the new shark listings.
During the workshop we learned that some countries, such as Palau, will not have to worry about the details of the new CITES rules; Palau has already chosen to establish a shark sanctuary throughout its national waters and prohibit the trade of sharks. This is an increasingly popular policy option in the Pacific to restore sharks to their former abundance: the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Cook Islands, and Tokelau have also created shark sanctuaries.
This is good news for sharks and people. Since the export of shark products produces the greatest pressure on shark populations, these new protections will help these shark species to rebound to their former abundance. For a government, a prohibition is easier and cheaper to enforce than a catch limit, which requires high monetary and human capacity, which may be difficult for Pacific island countries. It is my hope that in the near future, the Pacific will make more positive moves toward healthier shark populations -- which science has shown benefits ocean health.
Healthy sharks. Healthy oceans. Healthy and happy people.
Arthur Sokimi is a shark conservationist in Fiji. You can follow him on Twitter.