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August 16, 2012

Fiji Fishing – The Local Experience

By Sarah Fisk

Lemon Shark. Photo: Erwin FiliusLemon Shark. Photo: Erwin FiliusFrom the beginning, my role on this campaign has been as a liaison with Fiji and the Pacific Islands.  I have a small place in Fiji and I have been coming here since 2003.

I have many friends in my community, locals and ex-pats from various places.  Most of us love to go out on the sea in boats surfing, diving, snorkeling, getting from place to place: it is the way of life here – the ocean is as much a part of where we live as the land.  And it is a source of livelihood – deep-sea fishing tours, dive operations, snorkel tours, etc, as well as subsistence fishing.  So since the first discussion of bringing a shark protection campaign to this area, I have been listening and asking questions of my ocean-going friends.

What I have learned is not surprising if you know the extent of commercial fishing by foreign vessels in Fiji, but it is alarming.  The fish are gone.  One friend who fishes both inside and outside the reef says this is the worst year for fish he has ever experienced.   I reminded him of the time not too long ago when he and his buddy came regularly into the Oasis, a popular eatery here in Pacific Harbour, with their extra catch, and he smiles ruefully and shakes his head, “not anymore,” he says.

I call another restaurant to make dinner reservations for our group.  My friend the owner laughs when she hears what I am up to.  She suggests we do a “Shark Appreciation Night” with shark movies replacing rugby on her big screen TV.  “But Sarah, I am sorry to say we have no fish on the menu”, she tells me, “We just can’t get any.  There’s nothing good available right now, only frozen from far away.”

To be fair, the sea is not completely empty.  Today was the local Twisted Leaders fishing club “Sea-Lander” fishing competition where people fish in the morning and we all get together for a barbeque on the beach afterwards.   Fish were caught and prizes were awarded, and the “biggest fish” winner, a walu caught just inside the reef, was offered up to the grill and enjoyed by everyone.

But the numbers of big predator fish like tuna, wahoo, mahi mahi – the kind most people like to catch and eat – are dramatically and noticeably down.  I ran into a guy I know who operates a deep sea fishing boat over in the west.  He takes people out beyond the reef for a chance to hook a sailfish, a tuna, or other deepwater trophy fish.  I asked him how things were going and he shook his head.

“There’s no fish,” he said, “When we had our derby – 16 boats out for 3 days – you know how many fish were caught?” I shrugged and he held up his fingers: “Four.”

That’s it: sixteen sport fishing boats caught four fish in three days of trying.  My friend laughed then, and told me actually it was only three because one guy submitted the same photo twice but it was the same fish.  I don’t know how many people were on each boat, but I do know they paid good money to be there, and most of them came from overseas.

As we are standing there on the beach, a long line fishing boat passes in front of Beqa Island.  It is moving quickly through the passage, on its way to the legal fishing grounds outside the reef to the west.  Most commercial fishing companies in Fiji are owned by Chinese and Taiwanese nationals, with Fiji passports.  The passports, based on the level of investment they have made here, give them local status, which in Fiji, is a key source of influence.

“There goes the problem” says my friend, referring to the long liner.  He describes seeing a number of these boats last year – pulling in lines in the middle of the night with lights blazing – he said everything was lit up so bright you could see them stretched out for miles, lined up in a big arc along the deep water trough off of Vatulele.

I ask him what he is going to do.  “Sell my boat,” he smiles, “I can buy three smaller boats and charter them for fishing inside the reefs.  I will save on fuel and there are still some fish”.   He will be joining the double handful of boats that go out from my community to fish for pleasure with rod and reel.  Catch and release is mandatory on some species, like Giant Trevally, and more and more it is the fisherman’s choice as well.  As the pressure continues unchecked from just outside the reef system, we try our best to be conscious of our catch, even when we are fishing for one fish at a time with a simple rod and reel.

For local Fijians, most subsistence fishing is even more rudimentary, a hooked line dropped into the water from a small boat or a rocky reef edge.  The catch is usually reef fish, no bigger than the length of your forearm.  The fish most frequently consumed by locals in the Fiji islands is canned tuna.  It may have been caught right here, but it is very likely canned in Thailand and imported back.

So where do sharks come in?   Sharks are bycatch on the long lines of hooks spread out over the sea to catch tuna, meaning they get caught “by mistake”.  The more long line fishing, the more sharks killed as bycatch.  And the fewer tuna caught, the stronger the incentive to catch sharks on purpose for their fins.  While the commercial fishermen are inconsistent in their reports of how important shark bycatch is to their income, a personal friend who spent years on a long liner describes how they would bait the hooks closest to the floating buoy – the ones in the shallower water where the sharks are – with tuna pieces to catch sharks while the deeper hooks were baited as usual to catch the tuna they were officially fishing for.  The sharks were finned for the high prices.  This friend now works on a live-aboard dive boat.

In a recent conversation with a consultant to the tuna industry, I asked what he thought about all this.   His first comment was that sharks are not the only apex predator that is under extreme threat by overfishing.  There are a number of tuna species at risk in the South Pacific that have an equally important role in the ecosystem of the oceans.  He said tuna fishermen are concerned about this and would like the industry to be regulated for sustainability, but none of them want to be the ones to limit their own catch.

“You want to reduce shark mortality?” he then added, “Do three things.  Limit long line fishing.  Use the proper gear that lets sharks break off the lines.  And put observers on every single boat.”