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Fiji's endangered stars top fin trade

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, November 07, 2011

SHARKS that lure tourists back to our waters in a multi-million-dollar industry are seeing red.

Ten species of sharks highlighted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN) on its Red List, which gauges the level of threat against endangered wildlife species, have been identified as top-of-the-range in Fiji's fin trade.

And among the ICUN's "near threatened" and "vulnerable" red-listed sharks are the country's main attractions in shark-related tourism activities.

A study on the shark fin trade in Suva conducted by Dr Demian Chapman, the assistant director of science at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, Stony Creek University in New York, shows that a large amount of sharks killed for their fins are those that frequent dive spots which tourists visit for shark encounters.

The alarming statistics collated after his assessment with officials of the Fisheries Department in March this year proved their theory that sharks from Fiji waters are being killed and traded in large volumes to China, where it is a delicacy among the growing population of the rich.

His assessment ù based on visits to two shark dealers in Suva March 29-30 and on field reports from shark experts who did other researches on the global decline of these ancient predators ù also showed that locals are more involved in the trade than previously thought.

It revealed that offshore species, sharks that live in deeper water and are targeted as bycatch in tuna fisheries, are the most killed. These include the silky shark, oceanic whitetip shark and blue sharks.

"Visits to two fin traders in Suva indicate that a large volume of shark fins are being exported from Fiji, at least on the order of tens of thousands of fins per month," Dr Chapman said in his report.

"Most of the fins I observed came from the three species. These are all epipelagic, offshore species that are being captured by longliners."

Dr Chapman, who is among the first to successfully trace scalloped hammerhead shark fins from the burgeoning Hong Kong market all the way back to the sharks' geographic origin using groundbreaking DNA research, said the traders in Suva confirmed that most of the offshore sharks had their fins cut and their bodies left to sink to the bottom where they suffered agonising deaths.

"I also observed a number of fins from inshore species. According to traders, these come from the coast of Fiji and are collected by local people who are paid by the dealers for shark fins and sea cucumbers," he said.

"I estimated the total number of fins present at each dealer by counting the number of fins visible in digital photographs taken onsite. Since most sharks produce four marketable fins (dorsal, two pectoral and lower caudal), I divided the estimated total number of fins by a factor of four to estimate the total number of individual sharks killed. One dealer had approximately 1000 fins drying, which represents at least 250 sharks killed.

"The dealer also had four large freezers full of frozen fins that were impossible to count. The other dealer had three very large piles of dried fins that I estimate contained a total of 10,000-12,000 fins and represented 2500-4000 dead sharks. The dealer indicated that they were exporting this volume on a monthly basis from Nadi International Airport to Hong Kong."

After returning to the US, Dr Chapman's digital images were verified by researchers at the Stony Creek University and 10 shark species were confirmed among these fins.

This accounted for 28.5 per cent of species found along the coast around Fiji.

"They include offshore and inshore reef species, confirming reports that dealers are using sharks captured along the Fijian coast. One species listed as endangered and four listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) were found, indicating that species that are of conservation concern occur in the trade. The presence of three species that are important for dive tourism was also confirmed, highlighting conflicting use of these species in Fiji."

Ratu Manoa Rasigatale, who is spearheading an awareness campaign for the Coral Reef Alliance and Pew Environment Group to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary, said the statistics are of concern.

"It is sad to note from Dr Chapman's assessmant that locals are heavily involved in the killing of reef sharks," said Ratu Manoa, dubbed the Sharkman for his efforts to spread the gospel of shark conservation to all levels of the community in Fiji.

"We must do all we can to stop this trade and make sure that these sharks are not driven to extinction.

"Without the sharks, our reefs will die."

Fiji sharks on the ICUN's Red List are the scalloped hammerhead shark (endangered), oceanic whitetip shark (vulnerable), bigeye threasher shark (vulnerable), smooth hammerhead (vulnerable), sicklefin lemon (vulnerable), silky sharks (near threatened), blue sharks (near threatened), shortfin mako (near threatened), tiger shark (near threatened) and blacktip reef sharks (near threatened).


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