Vanuatu is a country that makes me wish I had the secret to make time stop. The smiles, the waves, the warmth and the love of the local people have made this visit one where I will be leaving with more than I can give. The Brigitte Bardot has been here for a week and in this time we have made significant progress. My crew has been working tirelessly to reach out to the local communities, screen films, do presentations, have meetings with the local chiefs and the government officials, and of course, walk the hundreds of locals through who visit through the ship everywhere we berth or anchor.
Vanuatu has been a visual treat as well. Over the past week, I have had a chance to anchor in crystal clear waters, berth at tiny wooden wharves in the middle of marine reserves and navigate the Brigitte Bardot through tricky shallow waters amidst copra plantations and mangroves. I can’t wait to sit back a few months later and go through the photo journal of this voyage.
However, the biggest progress that we have made has been in winning the love of the people. The SSCS crew have almost attained celebrity status and wherever we raft up, we have hordes of locals waiting to shake our hands and welcome us, and of course send us back to the boat with bags full of fruit- the aft deck of the Brigitte Bardot looks like a mini fruit vendor’s shop.
Every village we visit, we hear the same heart-wrenching story of illegal long-lining. The Vanuatu government in return for aid has given out licenses to Chinese and Taiwanese fishing boats to fish in their waters, between the 12NM Territorial Sea limit and the 200NM EEZ limit. However, these vessels brazenly defy this sea limit and often fish right off the coast, taking the fish that rightly belongs to the local villages, chiefs, and fishing communities. While Vanuatu bans shark finning in its waters, a majority of the long-lining boats actively fin and carry these fins out of the waters of Vanuatu, since none of the fish caught by the foreign long-liners are landed for local consumption. A testament to this is the drop in the sighting of sharks by locals and tag-and-release sport fishermen, who in the recent past could reach out from their boats and stroke sharks that swam right up to their boats.
Once again we see the ugly head of greed and selfishness invade the harmless waters of a foreign country. Vanuatu is probably the most low-impact country in the world. The province we are in does not even have a port; it imports no fossil fuel and has one dirt road that runs along the edge of the island. The locals live in little bamboo huts, grow their own cassava and taro and don’t even know what a plastic bag is. And yet, they’re the ones who are being affected most by this illegal fishing. The complete disrespect for life in the name of profit is evident here. Every local is aware of it; unfortunately they’re helpless to stop it.
Next week I hope to meet with the Minster of Fisheries, get on to national television and be on the radio for an hour long talk show in an aim to better understand and fathom the situation here in Vanuatu. There are over 200 foreign licensed boats long-lining in the waters of Vanuatu, most from China and Taiwan. Incidentally, these two countries are also the biggest importers and consumers of shark fins. With the absence of any control from the government of Vanuatu, the math is simple: The sharks from the waters of Vanuatu are disappearing and with it the effect on the marine eco-system is evident from what the locals have to say.
This is a unique situation where the locals have no interest in the profits from shark-finning; they have no intention of killing or for that matter even confronting one. For their sake and for their future and their pikininis, we need everyone who loves sharks to come together and unite to save the sharks on Vanuatu.