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Fiji Time: 4:12 AM on Friday 25 April

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Big bite

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, May 21, 2012

SHARKS make much better business partners than they do dinner guests.

And they do get you your bonus if they're alive deep in the pocket and in the seas around us, in all colours, shapes and sizes for the rest of our lives and that of our children.

Ministry of Fisheries and Forests statistics show that earnings from shark fin exports from Fiji to the world's shark fin capital Hong Kong pale in comparison to earnings from the shark-diving industry in Fiji.

The annual income from shark's fin trading averages $F8million while income generated by the shark-diving industry is at $US42million ($F75million), according to the recently-released study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

But while the export price of shark's fin has increased, from $HK377.12 ($F89.57) per kilo in 2001 to $HK678.30 ($F161) in 2011, and the shark-diving industry continues to reap bigger rewards with the growing popularity of Fiji to the world, the sharks are getting smaller and disappearing from some areas.

That reality, put on paper by the ministry for Cabinet to discuss and decide on a shark sanctuary for Fiji's 1.2-square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone, has raised the concern of marine lovers and dependents who stress the need to save the sharks.

The increasingly smaller sizes of shark's fins headed to Hong Kong, through which more than half of the world's shark fins is traded, shows the sharks being caught are smaller in size than in the past as the number of larger sharks decline.

The ministry said that while the shark catches are rising steadily, the weight of shark fin exports is dropping.

"The harvest rate is unsustainable. All shark species caught exhibit declining average sizes, which confirm that populations are gradually being depleted," it said.

Shark fins from Fiji are first sent to Hong Kong and then moved to mainland China for processing at cheap labour.

They are sent back to Hong Kong for added value and sold back to mainland China, Taiwan and other Asian countries.

A bowl of shark fin soup in Hong Kong can cost up to $US100 ($F174).

Dr Mark Meekan, a principal research scientist who co-authored the Australian Institute of Marine Science study, The Socio-Economic Value of the Shark-Diving Industry in Fiji, said sharks have a survival problem.

"They really can't handle a lot of fishing pressure," he said in an interview with the ABC.

"They're not like other fish, they are very long lived and quite slow growing, many of them live 30, 40 years or so, and they only have a few pups every year.

"That means if you put a lot of fishing pressure on them they disappear pretty quickly. Now when you've got a tourism industry that might depend on them being there that's obviously a bit of a problem. So a shark sanctuary's a pretty good idea.

"There's a growing recognition really that it's much, much better to preserve these animals and use them in a sustainable way rather than having a once-off profit when these animals are dead and turn up on a plate."

Dr Meekan, who has just completed a survey of the potential of white tip shark diving in Fiji, told the ABC that while doing the study they interviewed hundreds of divers around Fiji and asked them about what they were there to see.

"It turns out they were there to see sharks," he said, highlighting Pacific Harbour as one of the more famous dive sites.

"In fact, diving tourism and tourism to see sharks happens everywhere in Fiji."

Dr Meekan said it was difficult to change the perception and fear people had of sharks.

"... people have a very visceral fear of being eaten by things, that's something that evolution over a few million years has ensured," he said.

"At the same time we're actually fascinated by these animals as well, and maybe it's tapping into that fascination that's the really important thing. Hundreds and thousands of people go diving every year with sharks and the number of attacks are very, very few. In fact, more people are killed each year by vending machines believe it or not than they are by sharks.

"We actually kill ourselves around 70-odd million sharks a year, mostly for the shark fin soup trade.

"The number of human fatalities from sharks you can actually list on one hand."

"Although those events are tragic we really need to do something about the conservation of sharks I guess if they're going to be around for future generations to look at and admire."

While Cabinet waits to discuss a shark sanctuary, shark advocates are not sitting back, visiting schools around the country to raise awareness among Fiji's future generations.

"Time is the essense. The sharks are dying slowly and we need to move fast. Once they're gone, they're gone. And with it all that we have, our cultural identity, our marine ecosystem, our future," said Manoa Rasigatale, who is among a group of loyal campaigners spreading the shark conservation gospel.

Mr Rasigatale said it was important for Fijians to share their knowledge on sharks, whose meat is openly sold locally at markets around the country.

Local fishermen have joined commercial liners in the rush for shark fin money with no regard for the sustainability of the ecosystem.

"Once butchered, it will no longer bring awe, joy or inspiration to anyone," said Rasigatale.

"No one can catch and release it, no one can photograph it from above or under the water, and through it no one will marvel as to what a miracle nature is."

If protected by legislation, Fiji's sharks will appear more frequently, the divers follow in bigger numbers and livelihoods can flourish.

Shark feeding may a contentious practice but visiting sharks on their own turf especially in the areas where they congregate to breed, feed and give birth is not.

Everything down there is ensured longevity and there for the world to see forever.

This is where the real value is.