Our Golden Sharks
Author: Molly Powers Tora
Source: The Fiji Sun
March 3, 2013
Now imagine you have a screw driver. You could get good money for those screws, so you think about removing a few. But without any understanding of aviation mechanics or knowledge of how many screws there are or which screw might be structurally critical, do you start removing them in flight?
If your answer is ‘yes,’ remind me never to get into a plane with you.
This may seem like an unrealistic scenario, but it is an accurate analogy for what is happening to Fiji’s shark populations. Fishermen are removing sharks without understanding how many there are or what impact their removal may have on the ecosystem.
After attending a stakeholder meeting on the proposed National Plan of Action for Sharks on February 26th, I can only conclude that this destructive trend will continue.
Sharks have been an unmanaged fishery in Fiji, meaning that many tuna boats, after fulfilling their quota of tuna, continue to fill their holds with shark. Go down to any marketplace and you will find these sharks for sale, most of them juveniles.
This is especially bad news because sharks are slow to mature and only give birth to a few pups every year, meaning that they are very vulnerable to overfishing. Globally, we know shark numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate; a recent study in the Pacific showed population declines of up to 17% per year in some shark species.
Why catch sharks? Increasing demand from many Asian countries for shark fin soup has produced a booming market for shark fin across the globe. Fiji has been contributing to this trade, and there is no quota for the volume of shark fin that can be legally exported.
Why should Fijians care about sharks? Sharks are not only a cultural icon in Fiji; they also play a very important role in the marine ecosystem and Fiji’s economy. Sharks are at the top of the food chain, and they are critical in maintaining the balance and health of Fiji’s reefs and fish. Living sharks are also important to Fiji’s tourism industry. Scuba diving with sharks is a popular tourist activity, estimated to contribute FJD $74 million annually to Fiji’s economy--FJD $7 million of much of which goes directly to communities.
What is being done to protect sharks? Importantly, the government has opened a dialogue and in the last year has taken a number of notable steps aimed at reducing the number of sharks that are caught in Fiji’s waters. But this is not enough..
At present, the draft National Plan of Action for Sharks allows for continued fishing and retention of sharks. It suggests that “reduced” fishing will be sufficient to protect shark populations until more data become available, but does not attempt to set a quota or reduction target for harvesting rates. If we return to our earlier analogy, this is like saying you can keep removing golden screws from the plane--just don’t do it quite as fast as you were..
No one wants to see fishermen suffer, or for fishing businesses to shut down, but the approach we take to fishing sharks must be sustainable. This requires us to think not only about how we will put food on the table and money in our pockets today, but also about how we will sustain ourselves and our children in five or ten years.
We know that formal stock assessments can take decades to produce. But Fiji’s sharks don’t have decades. A temporary moratorium on shark fishing, similar to the turtle moratorium, would allow time for government and NGO partners to collect species-level data on Fiji’s sharks. If data show that some species can be fished sustainably, then the ban could be lifted.
A temporary ban is simpler and cheaper for the Department of Fisheries to implement than training its agents to identify individual species and enforcing a series of fishing restrictions with exemptions and weight limits. The severe fines associated with breaking the ban could also be a source of revenue for government.
Too often, we don’t know what we have until it’s gone. How dire will the situation have to be before we take action to save Fiji’s sharks? When the nose of the plane starts to spiral downward, it will be too late to return the golden screws to their rightful place.