Fiji spearheading global shark conservation
Shark Reef, a popular dive spot for tourists in the Pacific, received its full designation as one of the first acts of the newly elected democratic government of Fiji. The new Shark Reef National Marine Park, situated within Beqa Lagoon, will prohibit the removal of any marine organisms from sharks to corals, with no operations allowed without the express permission of the government.
While protected areas for sharks of some description are not new in the Pacific, the lack of resources available to governments of Small Island Developing States means they are often unable to enforce any laws which can inhibit conservation efforts. The Fijian Department of Fisheries is looking to overcome this potential barrier by working with private operators and civil society organisations such as WWF and academia.
It is the enforcement of the rules which sets this venture apart from sanctuaries established in other countries.
The Fijian government has entered into a partnership with Beqa Adventure Divers, the operator, to empower them to ensure the elimination of destructive practices which occur within the boundaries of the sanctuary. Most of the employees of Beqa Adventure Divers are from local communities, and are being trained in marine conservation issues. The added powers bestowed on them allows them to give the reef greater protection from poachers and illegal operations by granting them greater enforcement powers, which will remove some of the burden from the government and the public purse.
Ian Campbell, Manager of the Pacific Shark Programme, a joint initiative between WWF & TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, said “Sharks and rays have played a vital role in Pacific Island cultures since people started to inhabit these islands.”
“The Fiji government is making great efforts to protect these iconic species. They are not just a key part of a healthy marine environment, but they are an intrinsic part of the people in the region.”
Shark Reef has been the home to a conservation & community project that also incorporates a shark encounter dive, where divers can watch many species such as bull and reef sharks swimming in their natural environment. Prior to the new legislation, targeting sharks in the area was illegal, but there was a continued problem with enforcement & poaching. Now, new powers will allow the local community to protect and benefit from its natural asset.
“This initiative really is ground-breaking in the way the rules will be policed and how careful management of sharks can benefit conservation, science and vulnerable coastal communities too. WWF is proud to be part of this initiative and to assist with the oversight of Shark Reef Marine Reserve” Ian Campbell continued.
“WWF applauds the Fijian government for their ardent efforts to protect sharks and rays, some of their most prized national assets. Not only does this initiative seem to be a world first, but Fiji has also become the first small island Pacific Nation to propose international protection of threatened ray species under the Convention on Migratory Species. At a time when marine conservation experts are calling for “ocean optimism” this news certainly gives us that.”
The project, run by local diving operator Beqa Adventure Divers, offers supervised dives with these sharks, but they are also set up as a research station, collecting and helping analyse information on all the sharks that frequent the area. Local villagers from the communities who used to fish on the reef, also benefit as there is a user-pay fee imposed on divers to enable access to the sanctuary which goes directly to the villagers.
Mike Neumann, Director of Beqa Adventure Divers said: “We are humbled and deeply grateful to the Fijian Authorities for the past 10 years of excellent cooperation in developing this project, and for having entrusted us with the stewardship of this ground-breaking initiative. We shall endeavour to always discharge our obligations to the benefit of the local stakeholders, the marine environment and above all, to the benefit of our vulnerable shark population”
A management committee has been set up by the Fijian Department of Fisheries to oversee the running of the project, which will also include representatives from the University of the South Pacific and WWF.