While here in the Kingdom of Tonga, working on strengthening the protection of whales and sharks, we received the sad news that the proposed shark sanctuary in Fiji was rejected. The news is sad on many levels. Since Operation Requiem’s mission is to protect sharks and we are shark lovers, the idea of a sanctuary for sharks that would have encompassed all of Fiji’s EEZ was something we all supported and hoped for.
We are also saddened when we think of all the work and effort by CORAL (Coral Reef Alliance), Pew Family Trust, Fijian communities and local businesses to create a safe haven for sharks in Fiji.
Sharks are key to the ocean’s ecosystems both inshore and offshore. It doesn’t matter if you care about the creatures themselves as well as the diversity of life and take a conservationist’s perspective, or if you care about the Fijian people and consider the oceans as a source of food for local communities, or if your perspective is purely economic and you see the oceans as a capital resource to be used in trade for foreign goods and services; healthy ocean ecosystems are a necessity.
A shark sanctuary would have been a bold and courageous step for Fiji. It would have necessitated positive changes in the fishing industry, which, I am sure, seemed virtually impossible to those who would have had to make changes. Sadly change we know will come with or without the sanctuary – at some point, it will be forced by the oceans themselves.
A worst-case scenario of change would be collapsing ecosystems and loss of the fisheries. The indicators of this are already being seen. Drops in populations of tuna species, fewer and fewer fish to catch; we are lulled into complacency by a sliding perception of what is “normal”, when a quick look at the history books, or a conversation with an elder makes it crystal clear that things are not as they once were in the ocean.
We began planning this campaign for a year, when a shark sanctuary decision was to be made in May. Since then, it has been delayed several times, and we began hearing from many people in the know that foreign aid was too great, foreign fishing licenses too plentiful, shark fin too valuable, enforcement for existing regulations too lax, the officials too concerned about such a change for such a change to be enacted. We hoped that wasn’t the case and did what we could to support those organizations leading the effort.
Our hope for affecting a positive change has not been altered. Our commitment to protecting sharks has not waivered. Fiji’s decision to place the “management” of sharks in the hands of the fishing industry (the second largest economic driver in Fiji after Tourism) though disheartening doesn’t come as a surprise, and we have not given up our mission to reduce the decimation of shark populations in the South Pacific.
We are just one small group, but we are determined. And we are not the only ones who care. Our intention is to engage with as many other stakeholders as possible – conservationists, fisheries, local communities, governments, and you – to solve this complex issue.
We’ve been working on the behalf of sharks for over 30 years - we aren’t stopping now. With a history, expertise, and focus unlike any other conservation organization, we’re a critical part of the equation and would be delighted to work collaboratively with any nations and organizations who value healthy oceans, healthy communities and healthy economies above short-term profit.
While our individualistic human brains may not perceive this reality day to day, we are a part of the ocean and it’s health is essential to our own. Sanctuary or no sanctuary, we won’t stop defending our ocean. If the oceans die, we die – we are bartering survival on behalf of future generations.