Thursday, September 23, 2010

International Shark Sanctuary Challenge

I have written extensively on the Micronesia Challenge, former Palau President Tommy Remengesau's challenge to all of Micronesia to "effectively conserve 30% of near shore resources and 20% of terrestrial resources." Today his successor, President Johnson Toribiong, joined by Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, announced his own challenge. This challenge may not have an official fancy name such as the International Shark Sanctuary Challenge, but the challenge is a watershed moment in marine conservation, nonetheless. Today the two presidents challenged the entire world to create shark sanctuaries in their waters. Right now this challenge is being broadcast across the globe, including on the BBC, AFP, and several spanish media outlets. The story is also making the rounds on the blogosphere.

From Honduras News:
"Honduras and Palau, two countries that have stopped shark fishing in their waters, are urging the rest of the world to conserve the world’s dwindling shark populations or run the risk of losing the ocean’s top predator and throwing the marine food chain out of balance.

To coincide with the High Level Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to review the Millennium Development Goals, which include a target for preserving global biodiversity, President Johnson Toribiong of the Republic of Palau and President Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the Republic of Honduras issued a challenge to other world leaders to work together to save the world’s sharks.

The two Presidents are calling on coastal countries to establish shark sanctuaries in their waters, where no shark fishing is permitted, and for all fishing countries to end shark finning and the global overfishing of sharks."
About a year ago Palau became the first country in the world to create a national shark sanctuary. In the year since, both the Maldives and Honduras have banned all commercial shark fishing in their waters as well.

This is an exciting development. These three small countries are paving the way in showing the world the importance of protecting sharks. All of the large predators on land are protected; it only makes sense that the biggest predators in the ocean garner the same level of protections.

Hopefully these attempts to protect sharks will not be too late to save several shark species from the brink of extinction.

kesennuma japanOne third of all pelagic shark species are listed as threatened or near threatened by the IUCN. Some species' populations have been reduced by as much as 99%. That means that if something is not done, charismatic species like the white shark and the hammerhead may go the way of the Mariana mallard.

The major threat to shark populations is fishing. A recent meta-analysis by Ferretti et al found that even light fishing can have a dramatic effect on shark populations. Seen hundreds of schooling sharks around Saipan lately? Overfishing is to blame. The best way to protect sharks is to create shark no-take zones where populations can thrive. Marine protected areas work. Period.

The Ferretti et al meta-analysis also explores the ecological role of sharks. Sharks have been found to influence the recruitment of new coral on coral reefs. When sharks disappear, coral-dominated reefs may transition into algae-dominated reefs. Sharks may also influence the distribution of sea grass in Australia, the commercial scallop industry off the east coast of the United States, and commercial fishing in South Africa. Taking out the top predators in an ecosystem can have cascading effects on the entire community. This has been proven with wolves and mountain lions on land; it only makes sense that the principle would apply to sharks in the ocean.

For those of you living on Saipan, all you have to do to understand that marine protected areas work is to go snorkeling at Micro Beach and then Managaha. Can you guess which one is the marine protected area? Even though people are still catching fish at Managaha, it is one of the few places on Saipan where you can still see lots of fish and regularly see sharks (although the tourists are trampeling and killing the coral).

But it isn't light fishing that is driving sharks towards extinction. It is mechanized, targeted industrial fishing. Commercial fishing operations target sharks for their fins, which are used for soup in Asian restaurants. The shark fin itself is tasteless and only adds texture, but eating it is a sign of wealth. It is served at weddings and other celebrations for as much as $100 per bowl.

Often times the sharks have their fins cut off at sea and are thrown back into the ocean still alive and unable to swim. There is an animal cruelty component to this practice, but it is also wasteful. It is like killing an entire elephant for only the tusks, or a rhinocerous for its horn.

In the CNMI, anyone who goes bottom fishing catches sharks. And many of the guys who go trolling probably have stories about interactions they've had with sharks. What is done with the sharks caught in the CNMI probably depends on the fishermen. Some might get used for soup; some are used for meat. I'm sure many are just killed and thrown back in the water, wasted. I don't think any are thrown back in alive.

There is a small movement in the CNMI to protect sharks. In August there was a well-attended showing of Sharkwater and there is a Facebook group with over 400 fans. I believe one of the legislators has looked into legislation based on the recent shark fin ban in Hawaii, too.

Creating a shark sanctuary or banning shark products in the CNMI would not only be good for the environment, it would bring world wide attention. And the local leader who became the champion of sharks would be like Presidents Toribiong and Lobo, garnering positive international attention for their home.

1 comment:

The Saipan Blogger said...

I think a good name would be the International Shark Sanctuary Initiaive: ISSI.

I like ISSI. Sounds like Ozzy.