Fiji Time: 11:19 AM on Sunday 26 April

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Count your blessings

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, April 30, 2012

THERE is excitement and anticipation for bigger things under the water around the country's coasts.

That's the analysis as the first phase of The Great Fiji Shark Count comes to an end this week.

A first for the world, the count - an initiative of Fiji tourism operators and organised by Helen Sykes, of Marine Ecology and co-ordinator of Fiji Coral Reef Monitoring Network - is a scientific research which aims to put a population figure to the different species of sharks, rays and turtles in our waters.

Ms Sykes said the invite to The Great Fiji Shark Count across the isles and abroad was meant to involve everyone - from tourism operators, adventurers, marine researchers, coastal fishermen, deep sea anglers, sea travellers or anyone with a love for the sea and the life in it.

Data for this month is still being collected but the feedback so far has been "encouraging".

Ms Sykes said scientists could not do the job alone.

"... we can never get this amount of information from scientists working alone, and we are expecting to get some really eye-opening data," she said.

"It gives the participating operators and their guests a chance to do something positive for the reef life that supports their business, and to contribute the knowledge that they gather every day."

The count resumes in November and data collected in both months will be used to better understand the patterns of the marine ecosystem's health and monitor the effectiveness of shark protection measures as well as develop new strategies.

She said survey results would be made available to everyone striving to establish and promote our ocean's health.

Beqa Adventure Divers spokeswoman Nani Ledua said the feedback from tourists has been interesting.

"We are excited because we want to know how many different species are out there in the different areas," she said.

About 50 tourism operators are involved in the campaign.

Ms Ledua said the operators on the Coral Coast and Nadi were affected in the first two weeks because of widespread flooding.

Thousands of sedentary and cryptic fishes such as morays and stonefish, including some baby sharks that shelter and feed in the mangroves, were washed ashore after drowning in the sudden deluge of muddy freshwater.

Ms Ledua said as the weather improved, as people dug out of the muddy mess, and flights resumed bringing in the tourists, the count in the flood-hit areas began.

"While visibility was badly affected along the Coral Coast and Nadi in the first two weeks, things have picked up and the tourists are very much into it," she said.

"They are proud to be part of this.

"At Pacific Harbour and in Taveuni, we are on it on every dive trip. The results are amazing. We are doing the turtle and rays as well while out there and everyone is having fun at the same time."

Rays are being counted in the survey because they are closely related to sharks, sharing the same plight of overfishing, and turtles because they are an endangered species and mostly located close to where sharks are, off the reef out in deep water.

Survey participants fill forms before they go to sea and log all identification of species they see when they return.

Organisers expect the November count to be bigger with the Dive Expo scheduled to be held at the Shangrila Fijian Resort on May 25.

Travel agents will converge at the resort and meet operators who are working hard to sustain and promote their marine environment and the different species in it.

Ms Sykes, whose other works include Great Fiji Butterflyfish Count in 2008-2009, said they looked forward to the November count.

"It will be more exciting. Tourists will come specifically to take part in the count," she said.

According to a recently-released study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Western Australia, The Socio-Economic Value of the Shark-Diving Industry in Fiji, shark-diving was gaining popularity and is poised to become a tourism economic driver with conservation measures proposed to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary.

It found that shark-related diving contributed $US42.2million ($F75.4million) to Fiji's economy in 2010.

The survey estimated that approximately 49,000 divers were engaged in shark-diving activities in Fiji in 2010, accounting for 78 per cent of the 63,000 divers who visited the country that year.

The industry contributed $US17.5m ($F31.3m) in government taxes, $US11.6m ($F20.7m) in corporate taxes and $US5.9m ($F10.5m) in direct taxes from shark divers, according to the report. It also showed that local communities received $US4m ($F7.1) from shark diving operations. This included $US3.9m ($F6.9m) annually in salaries paid to workers and $US124,200 ($F221,904) for traditional reef owners.

Shark-diving in Viti Levu, which hosted 17,000 dedicated and casual divers - tourists who visited Fiji for other reasons other than shark diving - generated approximately $US10.2m ($F18.2m), 63 per cent of business revenues from shark diving.

The Mamanuca and Yasawa groups raked in $US3.2m ($F5.7m).

Dr Mark Meekan, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and co-author of the study, said they found "that sharks are one of the most significant creatures tourists wish to see when scuba diving".

"These animals are also an indicator of healthy coral reef ecosystems."

Jill Hepp, of the Pew Environment Group which is working with the Coral Reef Alliance and the Ministry of Fisheries to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary, said Fiji had a reason to protect the world's oldest predator

"Fiji is world-renowned for shark diving and it comes as no surprise the industry brings in tens of millions of dollars in tourist spending each year," she said.

"Shark diving is already a major driver of Fijian tourism, and it is fast growing sector of the industry."

The AIMS study highlighted a single shark dive operator based in Pacific Harbour that saw a doubling of bookings between 2004 and 2006, and another doubling from 2006 to 2010.

Questionnaires completed during the study determined that the major draw for this dive operator was the opportunity to dive in close proximity with tiger and bull sharks.

"Growth in shark-diving tourism is dependent upon healthy shark populations," said Rick MacPherson of the Coral Reef Alliance. "It is simple to understand that if there are no sharks, there will be no shark diving."

Other countries that rely heavily on shark tourism have passed laws to protect these important species. Economic studies have shown that The Bahamas generates $F139million ($US78 million) in shark diving revenue each year, while Palau generates $F32million ($US18million) per year.

Both countries have declared shark sanctuaries in recent years, closing down commercial shark fishing operations and banning the trade in shark fins.

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