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Hope in the deep

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Saturday, October 22, 2011

DAKUWAQA will be a happy fish, so too his keepers.

The ancient shark god ù who Fijians believe still roams our waters and upholds his end of the bargain to protect his people and their livelihood in the reefs ù may finally see his deal with humans on paper.

The Ministry of Primary Industries' Department of Fisheries and Forests will forward a proposal, which is being drafted, to Cabinet soon for legislation to ban the commercial fishing and trade of sharks and their parts, including fins.

If it is passed, new legislation could be in place before year's end.

The Gone Turaga Bale na Tui Cakau, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, who has a strong traditional link to the shark god, has given his support for a national shark sanctuary in his capacity as the traditional leader of the Tovata Confederacy.

His yavusa Ai Sokula (clan) comes from the lineage of the Gone Mai Wai, whose twin was a shark and is known as Dakuwaqa, also referred to as the Gone Mai Wai.

Ratu Naiqama's Cakaudrove Province is already a shark sanctuary, from the Somosomo Strait across to the other side of Vanua Levu and to the furthest islands North.

The people of Cakaudrove have an obligation to protect the sharks, who they believe, will in turn protect them and the reefs which they feed on.

Like Ratu Naiqama, the heads of the Kubuna and Burebasaga confederacies also support the designation of Fijian waters for shark conservation.

Traditional leaders have given their support to the Fisheries Ministry, as well as the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) and the Pew Environment Group, non-profit organisations that next week will step up the campaign to raise community awareness about the importance of sharks in Fiji.

Matt Rand, the director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group, said a national shark sanctuary in Fiji would be a huge victory "for these animals".

"This action would close down a major hub in the Pacific for the trafficking of fins and highlight Fiji as home to the world's second-largest shark sanctuary," he said in a joint statement from CORAL and Pew.

The proposed Fiji National Shark Sanctuary, encompassing the country's 1.3-million-square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone, will be the first of its kind in the West Pacific.

It is modelled after similar conservation measures in the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, and Tokelau.

According to the Fisheries Department annual reports, the country's exports in 2003 were 180 tonnes of shark products.

Most of Fiji's sharks' fins are exported.

Traditionally Fijians don't eat sharks but this has changed in recent times with shark meat being used for fish and chips and sold to unsuspecting people. With the rise in the trade of fins, shark meat used to be sold openly at the Suva Market.

This changed slowly as awareness campaigns led by Sharkman Ratu Manoa Rasigatale and members of CORAL went across the country to schools and villages.

"We made a presentation to all the roko from around Fiji at their meeting at Nadave and they have given us their 100 per cent support. We are gaining momentum and look forward to the day we have legislation to protect sharks," said Rasigatale.

"Fijians must treasure this cultural link with the sharks. They have protected us all this time and it is time we stood up to protect them from the greed of people."

Rick MacPherson, the conservation programs director at CORAL, said Fijians have a long history of supporting locally managed-marine areas.

"This strong cultural connection to the reefs makes our job easier as we work alongside the Fijian community to develop an effective sanctuary for sharks that benefits both the marine ecosystem and the people who rely on it," he said in a statement.

"This shark movement is an excellent opportunity for us to use our resources to unite a nation to protect marine ecosystems."

Sharks are significant to the health of coral reefs.

Shark scientist Demian Chapman, PhD, from the Stony Brook University in New York, provided an assessment of the sharks' fin trade for fisheries officials in Suva and highlighted the need to protect the ancient predators.

"A reef without sharks is a sick reef," Mr Chapman said in the statement.

As top ocean predators, sharks regulate the populations of prey species and potentially the overall health of the ocean, according to Mr Chapman.

Falling populations of these animals might even lead to general coral reef decline.

"There is a clear empirical association between thriving shark populations and healthy coral reef ecosystems," he said.

Mr Chapman found that the sharks' fin trade in Suva includes the sale of thousands of fins from sharks that are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, such as scalloped hammerhead (endangered) and silky, blacktip reef, and bull sharks (all near threatened).

His assessment also found trade in fins from shark species that live and breed on the reef, and are important for ecotourism.

Earlier this year, the Australian Institute for Marine Studies found that reef sharks in Palau contribute nearly US$18 million annually to the national economy through diving and associated tourism activities.

A similar analysis in French Polynesia found that an individual lemon shark has a lifetime value of more than $US300,000, a significantly higher figure than if it had been caught for its fins.

"A living shark is worth far more than a dead shark," said Mr Rand.

On Monday, the awareness campaign steps up with its launch at Suva's Village 6 Cinemas by the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

It includes the screening of a 30-minute documentary called Shark Hope.

It is about the plight of Fiji's sharks and efforts to protect them, chronicles their importance to Fiji's culture through myths and stories, as well as the critical role they play in maintaining a healthy marine environment.

The film features Ratu Naiqama and Sharkman Rasigatale, a Fijian cultural icon, former senator, and reality television personality.

Support shark conservation and the protection of Fiji's reefs. Send your comments to ituragabeci@fijitimes.com.fj





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