Friday, March 18, 2011

Fiji Expedition: Shark Fin Soup

This is a guest post from Dr. Stacy Jupiter, Program Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Fiji. The photos are by frequent Global Explorers Blog contributor Keith Ellenbogen.

Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, felt remorse for his portrayal of the great white eating machine. The book and subsequent movie did indeed stir panic and fear in beachgoers, swimmers and surfers around the world. Benchley repented during the last decade of his career by becoming a strong advocate for shark conservation. He published several non-fiction works about the plight of sharks and how media sensationalism can lead to senseless killings of these majestic creatures that have critical functions in marine ecosystems. [Note: Wendy Benchley wrote for this blog about her husband's dedication to ocean conservation in this post during a 2008 expedition to the Sea of Cortez.]

 Bull shark at Shark Reef in Fiji (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

But sensationalism is not what is currently driving shark populations to the brink of extinction. They are being slaughtered on the scale of 50 million per year . . .  for shark fin soup. In China and other parts of Asia, shark fin soup is served to celebrate success or to honoured guests. As China's middle class grows, so does the demand for this luxury item, which fishers around the world eager to sell high value catch are happy to provide. [Note: New England Aquarium Explorer in Residence and National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry wrote this post about shark finning and other threats sharks face.]

Bull shark at Shark Reef in Fiji (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

In Fiji, indigenous people traditionally revered sharks as gods. Some fishermen still pay homage to Dakuwaqa, the Shark God, by pouring a bowl of kava in the sea before embarking on a fishing trip. It is not in Fijians' nature to destroy their totem spirits, and until recently, the inshore reef sharks were largely not a targeted fishery. But with rising costs of living and growing numbers of middlemen willing to pay top dollar to sell fins to feed the hungry Asian market, even small scale fishers are actively hunting the white tip, black tip and grey reef sharks that once had free reign over the coral gardens.

Bull sharks at Shark Reef in Fiji (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Conservation organizations, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), are struggling to find solutions to the rapid disappearance of these ocean giants that are critical for maintaining ecological balance in marine systems. With help from the Pew Charitable Trusts, some Pacific Island nations such as Palau and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have recently passed national legislation banning shark finning. While these are great conservation successes, they are only a first step. Without resources for enforcement and prosecution, the bans may only drive the finning further underground.

Whitetip reef shark (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Keith and I took the plunge onto Shark Reef in Beqa Lagoon to observe how one local dive operation, Beqa Adventure Divers, is promoting shark conservation through green tourism that provides direct benefits to the local communities in terms of payment for each diver who visits Shark Reef. On the boat ride out, we had the opportunity to chat at length with owner Mike about his take on the issues. Mike has been working with the Fiji Department of Fisheries for several years to develop similar nation-wide bans on shark finning. However, he is rightfully adamant that unless the ban is coupled with staff and resources to conduct surveillance of shipping containers being exported to Asia, the law with never have teeth.

Blacktip reef shark (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

The sharks did not disappoint. We descended first to 30 m where over forty bull sharks took turns parading on their catwalk (top three photos). Granted, they were more interested in the severed fish heads being served up than showing off their sleek leather, but the fall line was still quite an impressive display.

Blacktip reef shark (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Next we moved up the reef wall to 10 m where the grey reef sharks took turns showing off while the blacktips (photos above) and whitetips stole in where they could for a nibble. They got their chance to take center stage on the reef flat, amid Acropora table and finger corals and a spectacular turquoise backdrop.

I left Shark Reef today feeling hopeful that the passion of individuals can inspire change in the world. Whether that change is to convince donors to provide necessary training and capacity to Fiji Department of Fisheries to police shark finning or to convince an entire generation that responsible seafood choices are imperative to maintaining healthy oceans, they are all part of the solution. [Note: Dr. Jupiter posted about Fijian conservation efforts in this post from the 2010 Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition.]

Stacy Jupiter, PhD

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Stacy, very kind of you!
    It's been a pleasure hosting you and Keith, keep up the good work!