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Slaughter for Fijian plates

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, September 16, 2013

HUNG shamelessly from a tree by the roadside for all to see, the two young men separated skin from flesh and chopped up the prized catch into big chunks.

The fins, tails and heads of the five mako sharks had been removed at the first point of contact — on the high seas on board tuna fishing boats inside Fiji's Exclusive Economic Zone.

If not for the distinctive head of this species of the world's oldest predator, their strong jawline and razor-sharp teeth that lined the grin that stayed frozen at death, a sight that has so often driven a world still reeling from the impact of Jaws into fear, the fish could have easily passed off as wahoo or sailfish.

Even dead, the sharks stopped traffic last week.

The two men were oblivious to the attention they had seized off the busy road at Veisari outside Lami. All they cared about was "processing" the mako for the Suva fish market.

They didn't care about what some of those passing said about their being part of the shark product industry that's taking a heavy toll on our shark population and the marine ecosystem.

Soon their pockets would be filled.

Setareki Laveti, a carver who had taken his fight for sharks into designs on dining tables or anything wood of the rich and famous in Fiji, was among those who stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of the sharks.

As a crew of the Uto ni Yalo, he visited countries that killed sharks indiscriminately and saw first-hand the damage it did to their marine ecosystem.

"It is a pitiful sight. These sharks were finned, deep-freezed and sold cheaply once on shore. What about the sharks finned and left to drown? That happened in the past and continues to happen out there," Mr Laveti said.

With no legislation in place to stop or control the plunder of this animal that keeps the balance and health of the marine food chain, there is a worrying trend of acceptance of shark products in some of the country's main centres.

The two men — who did not want to be named for fear of victimisation by those who advocate for shark protection — have been dealing in shark meat for some time.

Ironically, they hail from an island whose surrounding reefs are starting to show signs of overfishing. The disappearing sharks have led to the slow demise of other fish that depend on the king of the reef to protect them from predators down the food chain.

To them, shark meat is easy money. They don't need a boat to go out and fish. They just wait at the wharf.

When the Chinese fishing boats sail into the harbour, the buyers of finned sharks lined up for what are mostly mako. At $10 each at whatever size, they transport them out of the city to "process", which involve skinning the thick hide of the sharks and chopping them into blocks that fill white plastic bags.

For most of the week, buyers have the choice of buying the bags of white flesh at $5.

Like the pair along the Queen's Rd, 62-year-old Mala (not his real name) sells shark meat openly at the Suva market. It has become his livelihood.

"Before, we used to skin the sharks at the fish market but the Suva City Council stopped us because of the overpowering smell of the skin. Now we have to transport the sharks to the outskirts to do this or we fear we may not be allowed to sell where people flock to buy fish," he said.

"It's good money for us. We buy at $10 each and can make up to $70 from a mako shark if it's a good day. Life's hard in Suva. We left the island to come here for a better life and this has provided us with a good opportunity."

Mala, who is usually accompanied by his granddaughter next to the Walu Bay bridge where he "processes" the sharks, said he understood the role of the predator in a healthy ocean environment for our future generations but it was legal to catch, fin and sell shark meat.

While tuna boat operators have insisted that sharks are just a bycatch, shark advocates and environmentalists say otherwise — that the sharks are a targeted fisheries that make a big part of the tuna boat operators' income.

Previous surveys revealed that the fins are mostly flown to Hong Kong, sent to the mainland for processing at cheap labour and returned to Hong Kong from where they are marketed back across China and other Asian countries as a costly delicacy.

Coral Reef Alliance shark campaigner Manoa Rasigatale, who has been calling for some form of protection for sharks, is more disappointed now than he was when a plan to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary like that in other parts of the Pacific never made it before decision makers.

He and other stakeholders have since been waiting on a proposed shark management plan by the ministry.

"We're still waiting. And while we're doing that the wrong signals have been sent out that it's OK to plunder our shark stocks without thought to what we're doing to our marine ecosystem," he said.

"The tuna operators, and other coastal fishermen who bring in these sharks, feel free to do so because it is legal. They know the effects but no one seems to care anymore because it is accepted."

He said people were losing conscience, become more daring and unashamed to be involved in the killing of sharks that was destroying Fiji's biggest resource — its reefs, ocean and marine life that tourists flock to marvel at.

"When the sharks are gone, do you think the tourists will come for the dead reefs? All the hard work done by some in the ministry, in other organisations, by others who care about our ocean will go down the drain if we don't do anything to protect the best thing we have.

"People in Fiji never used to eat shark meat before like they do now. The fact that it is being sold and bought openly shows we have adapted a mindset that's blind to our future. We need to stop this before it is too late."

For the tuna boat operators and those like Mala, it is simple — make hay while the sun shines.

And while it does shine for the increasing number of shark hunters, those who wait for that management plan to be implemented hope it is soon before the sun sets for good on these species.