TOWARDS SAVING SHARKS AND RAYS IN PNG
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is home to 132 sharks and rays species that includes some of the most threatened shark and ray species, including hammerhead sharks, sawfish, and rhino rays.
It is this shark and ray biodiversity that provided the opportunity for PNG to be chosen as one of the first global pilot sites for WWF's Sharks and Rays Recovery Initiative (SARRI) in the Gulf of Papua (GoP), primarily focusing in the Western Central and Gulf Provinces.
Sharks and rays are important components of marine ecosystems that help maintain the oceanic food web balanced, in addition to their historic and cultural value to Pacific people. However, global populations of several of these exquisite species have dropped by more than 70%, and if nothing is done, they will become extinct in our waters. The moment has come to act and save these species from extinction, especially in PNG.
The GoP is distinguished by huge delta areas, mud flats, and mangrove swamps, and it is known for its great diversity of sharks and rays. This area contains 30% of the 132 species known to occur within PNG waters, that include winghead hammerhead sharks (Eusphyra blochii), scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum), shark ray (Rhina ancylostoma), giant guitarfish (Glaucostegus typus), bottlenose wedgefish (Rhynchobatus australiae), eyebrow wedgefish (Rhynchobatus palpebratus), narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidate), largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis), dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata), and green sawfish (Pristis zijsron).
Working with identified local communities and stakeholders, the PNG project site would conduct research, implement community-based fisheries management, establish tambu areas (locally managed marine protected areas), contribute to and add value to improved livelihoods within communities, and increase bycatch mitigation efforts inshore and offshore.
The GoP is also home to freshwater sharks, including the speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis) and the Northern river shark (Glyphis garricki). A sign that pelagic sharks, euryhaline sharks, and riverine sharks (sawfishes) co-exist in the area. Eusphyra blochii, Sphyrna lewini, Pristis pristis, and Rhynchobatus australiae are the focal species.
WWF’s shark conservation work
In 2020, WWF began working on sharks in PNG, collecting data on sharks and rays in 15 Madang communities as part of the Spawning Potential Survey. The data collected is used to influence the construction of tambu areas among the target communities in Madang Province, by determining the types of species captured, the price sold, and the catch per unit effort.
WWF used a citizen science strategy to conduct creel and market surveys in local communities by educating and involving community facilitators. The rediscovery of one of the world's rarest sharks, the sailback houndshark and Gogolia filewoodi, endemic to Madang Province and PNG, was also a highlight of the work. Samples were taken from both females and a male specimen that will be added to the scientific literature. The survey also discovered the first Western spotted gummy shark (Mustellus stevensi) in PNG waters.
It would be irresponsible not to mention collaboration efforts with all stakeholders in this arena. Such conservation initiatives would not be realised or realised without them. WWF is now collaborating with the PNG Conservation and Environment Protection Authority to organise regional talks in the evaluation of the PNG National Plan of Actions (NPOA) for Sharks and Rays 2021-2024. The NPOA Shark will be evaluated in 2024.
The GoP, the Central and Gulf Provinces, and Madang are now the focus of increased shark conservation operations, and the lessons learned, including replication standards, will be shared nationally and regionally. A multi-stakeholder approach is also essential in our attempts to rescue sharks and rays, and we look forward to collaborating with key partners and, most importantly, local citizens to raise awareness and protect these magnificent species.