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Fiji Time: 7:17 PM on Wednesday 16 April

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RED alert on whitetip

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, March 12, 2012

OVERFISHING is slowly killing off a shark species the people of Beqa are respectful and proud of.

And the danger flag waved by the International Union for Conservation of Nature over the oceanic whitetip sharks has raised the concern and anger of Rukua villagers against foreign and local anglers who disregard pleas to save the sharks.

The people of Rukua are descendants of a traditional fisherman chief who, legend has it, turned into a shark with a white tip when someone angered him by eating food prepared for him and his men following a fishing trip.

The shark became their protector and the people of Rukua refer to him as Cakaubalavu or the Gone mai Wai (child from the sea).

Once extremely common and ranked as one of the three most abundant species of both oceanic sharks and large marine animals, oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) are now listed as vulnerable on the ICUN's Red List of Threatened Species.

For Cakaubalavu's descendants, killing their protector is unacceptable. The shark, while ensuring their safety at sea, has maintained his role as the gonedau (traditional fishermen), ensuring there is always fish in abundance for them and their future generations.

Beqa is shark rich and home to a diverse and colourful marine life.

Shark campaigner Manoa Rasigatale says the people of Rukua, like elsewhere in Fiji where the shark is revered as a totem and protector, believe the oceanic whitetip and the rest of the species should be saved.

"Saving it is saving their tradition and their marine environment. It is as simple as that. Take away the shark and they lose their traditional tie to it and the story that has been passed on from one generation to another," says Mr Rasigatale.

"It is their identity and that is important. I'd be angry too if one of my own is killed."

While the old men of Rukua often speak of the shark with a white tip, the sight of any shark species is comfort for them.

Whitetips, like other shark species, are fished as a bycatch by foreign and local trawlers.

According to the Pew Environment Group, whitetips are routinely caught inadvertently in fishing nets and on longlines, fishing gear that can extend underwater for up to 48 kilometres.

Whitetip sharks are the second most commonly caught species in purse seine fisheries in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Although this species experiences a high catch-survival rate on longline fishing equipment, the high value and increasing demand for its fins means fishermen have little incentive to release the animals alive, it says.

Pew estimates that fins of this species are valued at $US45 ($F79) to $US85 ($F149) per kilogram.

Mr Rasigatale says there is evidence showing that, even when it is illegal to do so, fishermen often remove the fins at sea and dispose of the carcass overboard.

"It is a cruel thing to do and is a pitiful sight, the disabled shark sinking to the bottom to the seabed where it lies waiting to die."

Oceanic whitetip fins easily identifiable by their white colouring, rounded shape, and large size are usually found far offshore in the open sea or around islands and areas with narrow continental shelves at depths less than 200m.

Scientists have proven what the people of Beqa believe that their protector is a traveller, swimming across vast stretches of the ocean to the far reaches of Fiji's archipelago of more than 300 islands and beyond to the rest of the Pacific.

These sharks, according to Pew, prefer waters ranging between 18 to 28 degrees Celcius and have only occasionally been recorded inshore. The oceanic whitetip is one of the most widespread shark species, with their range spreading across entire oceans in tropical and subtropical waters.

Studies have shown that oceanic whitetips are equally active during the day and night. Their diet consists mainly of bony fishes (including tunas, barracuda, white marlin, and swordfish) and cephalopods, and to a lesser extent, seabirds and marine mammals.

These travels of the Gone mai Wai, according to Mr Rasigatale, led to the link between the people of Beqa and Cakaudrove.

In Cakaudrove, people share the same sentiments as those in Rukua. And justly so, they share a traditional link with the shark.

Benau an island between Vanua Levu and Taveuni and home to the shark god Dakuwaqa is their evidence of a special relationship between the shark, Rukua Village and the people of the Ai Sokula clan, of the chiefly bloodline of the Na Gone Turaga Na Tui Cakau, who legend has it was a twin of Dakuwaqa.

When the twins were born, they were put in a basket made of leaves and left to drift at sea. One turned into a shark, the other was rescued by the people of the Ai Sokula. They returned to land with this child from the sea, escorted by the shark god who promised to protect his brother and his people.

The people of the Ai Sokula embraced the child as their chief and today Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, the current paramount chief, has summoned his people to support the campaign to protect his family.

His gonedau are originally from Rukua. They first arrived in Somosomo when they heard news of the twins' birth.

Today, these gonedau make up the mataqali Benau in Somosomo.

After a week-long campaign on Taveuni by Mr Rasigatale and the team from Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), which is working with Pew and the Ministry of Fisheries to enact legislation to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary, the people of Taveuni are more determined to spread the gospel and do all they can to ensure the safety of sharks.

Ratu Jekesoni Yavala, from the chiefly Ai Sokula clan, says it is their duty to the shark.

"Before we only knew that the shark is the king of the sea. After this week-long campaign, we learnt so much more. That the shark is the mainstay of the marine world," he says.

"Without the shark, our reefs will die. And with it food sources for us and our future generations

"It is so important for the younger generation to keep alive this traditional knowledge about the shark.

"While we no longer worship Dakuwaqa as a god, we have a link that's sacred and traditionally blood related. This is one proof that this is no ordinary legend, but a living one."

Ratu Jekesoni says the youths of Taveuni, most of who never knew the stories of old, now see things differently.

The island's coast is a haven for sharks. From Benau through the Somosomo Straits, the sharks are in abundance, so too fish for the plate thanks to the pledge by Ratu Naiqama to keep his waters a shark kill-free zone.

Ratu Jekesoni says the village rugby team, Somosomo Sharks, will take the save-the-shark gospel around the country wherever they play.

"We are the Somosomo Sharks and we have a mission to win the hearts of all those who will listen to our story."

Mr Rasigatale and his team, including Helen Sykes, who has studied shark species around Fiji's islands, left Taveuni yesterday after a night of party close to the boto-ni-yala, from which the rocky-bottom river from Uluiqalau flows out from between Dreketi and Somosomo.

They celebrated a tour success and were sent off satisfied that they had strengthened the resolve of the people, especially the children.

"This campaign will continue to the rest of Fiji until people stop killing sharks altogether and give them the respect they deserve for their role in marine conservation," he says.

According to Pew, up to 73 million sharks are killed annually for the shark fin industry.

Demand for the shark fin delicacy has led to their rapid decline across the globe and because sharks grow slowly, mature late and produce few young over long lifetimes, it leaves them exceptionally vulnerable to over-exploitation and slow to recover from depletion.

As key predators, their depletion also has risks for the health of entire ocean ecosystems.

Mr Rasigatale says the time to act is now.

"It has never been so critical as now and it's time to reverse the decline. We will work harder to educate people everywhere about how much more valuable sharks are to us alive than dead.

"We will continue to push for a sanctuary while we still have the sharks alive in our waters."

For the oceanic whitetips, the enthusiasm of the people of Beqa, Taveuni and the rest of Fiji that support shark conservation is enough reason to smile that toothy grin, them and the rest of their shark cousins the big bulls, the tigers, lemon and the many others closer to shore.

Stop the killing and it'll be a happier growing family.