TO say that sharks are only a bycatch is an understatement.
Sharks are the base fisheries for any tuna boat operator, according to former tuna fisherman Kaiafa Ledua, who spent six years on Chinese fishing boats around Fiji's archipelago.
They're targeted, not accidental catches as tuna boat operators claim and have successfully lobbied to continue catching despite serious concerns raised by conservationists who are warning the indiscriminate killing will eventually destroy Fiji's marine ecosystem.
Mr Ledua, who quit fishing and joined the Uto ni Yalo on its ocean voyages across the Pacific in 2010, said his days of relentless killing of sharks is a guilt he carries.
Today, he is a strong advocate of shark protection.
"Shark fishing is a big operation on tuna fishing boats," Mr Ledua said.
"As Fijians on board the Chinese fishing boats, we'd often talk about our traditional connection to the shark but when it came to going on deck and fish, we'd go for kill because of the money we made from each shark we caught.
"For us crew, tuna was the bycatch. The sharks were our target."
The crew, according to Mr Ledua, were paid triple of what they earned in salary as tuna fishermen.
"We'd get our wages and triple that as bonus for our sharks. It drove us to hunt the sharks."
Mr Ledua said tuna boat operators were prepared for shark hunting every time a boat sailed out to fish for tuna. Shark lines are tied to floaters and dropped to a depth above that which schools of tuna swim at.
"How much the Chinese prize the sharks is reflected in the extent they'd go to fish one. We'd use A-grade tuna meant for export as bait.
"If we dropped the tuna, we wouldn't be told off as when we'd drop a shark. We'd be blacklisted and told to leave the boat, or transferred to another, when we got to port."
Sharks caught in Fiji waters are finned, dried and sent to Hong Kong from where they are moved to the mainland for distribution.
Public awareness and pressure against killing sharks — whose populations are fast declining at 100 million kills in the last survey early this year — has led to countries putting in place legislation to safeguard them.
Mr Ledua said Fiji's citizens and the Ministry of Fisheries needed to do more to protect sharks.
He said his voyages on the Uto had showed that sharks kept alive were worth more than dead sharks. "Countries that protected sharks reaped financial rewards through tourism dollars. More important is the fact that sharks maintain the balance in the marine ecosystem."
NEXT WEEK: Killing frenzy