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Diving with the beast

Ropate Valemei
Saturday, April 18, 2015

LAST week, we looked at the importance of shark diving in the country and its contribution to the tourism industry.

This week, we will explore shark conservation efforts and initiatives enforced by stakeholders to protect this species in our waters.

Tourism Fiji has been one of the major stakeholders safeguarding shark diving and shark conservation in the country.

Tourism Fiji global public relations manager Patricia Mallam says shark conservation efforts in Fiji can be boosted by dive tourism, as once there is an economic value realised from conserving any natural resources, necessary measures will be taken to safeguard its sustainability.

She says Fiji has realised the importance of shark conservation and is already working towards the protection of sharks and rays.

Ms Mallam said not enough was being done for the protection of this specie.

"In my personal opinion, no — I think there is a lot more that can be done.

The Fijian Government and stakeholders are embarking on taking measures to protect sharks in Fiji, however, there is still room for improvement," she said yesterday.

In July last year, she said, Fiji put forward manta rays and the endangered devil rays to be protected under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

Fiji's Ministry of Fisheries and Forests and their colleagues in the Department of Environment, in partnership with NGOs such as PEW and WWF-Pacific, had stepped up the game when it came to protecting sharks and rays.

Then in September last year, five species of sharks and two species of manta rays were officially protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

"This means that the trade in any parts of these species is now severely restricted. Coastal species of sharks play a vital role in keeping the oceans healthy.

"Recent scientific research from the US indicates that a loss of sharks from reefs could have a detrimental impact on other fish such as snappers and groupers, fish that many coastal communities use on a daily basis for food."

She said sharks were at the apex of the food chain in almost all parts of the ocean, and their role was to keep other marine life in healthy balance and to regulate the oceans. "It is estimated that globally as many as 73 million sharks are killed every year, and that shark populations have dropped by 70-80 per cent over the past few years.

"This is due to commercial fishing for sharks, most of which are thrown away once their fins have been sliced off for sale for shark fin soup."

However, she said, it was very hard to collect data on sharks because sharks were normally spread out along the reefs in deep offshore waters, only a few were seen at any time, and normal fish counting techniques — which count numbers of fish in a measured area — could not pick up enough sharks to make realistic assessments of populations.

"This is where "citizen science" comes into its own; by having many eyes on many reefs, we can collect data from hundreds of observers all across Fiji, and create the first real picture of which sharks live where, and get an idea of real shark numbers.

"Getting real data on shark populations is vital for proper management, and The Great Fiji Shark Count is a very important part of getting this data, both for work in Fiji and also to supply information to global surveys."

She said future shark counts would be used to record the success of shark protection measures. Sharks are a major draw for many tourists to the region.

"Almost every dive operator will tell you that when it comes to getting the majority of dive tourists excited, it is sharks and large mantas that most want to see at some point in their trip," she said.

"From small reef sharks to larger predators, every sighting is another endorsement for the region as a mecca for divers.

"And with each tourist comes tourist dollars, helping support local businesses and economies."

In Fiji, she said the world renowned Beqa lagoon shark dive drew people from around the world wanting to see large bull sharks and other species swimming on healthy reefs, with money going directly to local communities.

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