Activists in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific are proposing a huge new shark sanctuary in the face of fishing pressures and the continued massive drop in shark numbers over the last decade worldwide. The Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative, or PICI, is working with local fishery authorities to craft the Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary to extend over the Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone, which covers almost 2 million square kilometers of ocean.
“It’s pretty exciting to see this idea start to unfold and to see the community get behind it, and to actually feel like we might accomplish something of measurable impact,” says Jessica Cramp, program manager at PICI, interviewed by phone from the Cook Islands.
PICI is a small operation, started by Steve Lyon, who owns Pacific Divers, a dive shop in Rorotonga. He is also president of the Tourism Industry Council there. Cramp is the only other volunteer so far, and has been involved for seven months.
Of the 18 known species of sharks in the Cook Islands, Cramp says, 15 appear on a “red list” put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, or the IUCN. That list is a widely recognized measure of species’ vulnerability to extinction, scaled from “least concern” to “extinct.” Five of the shark species in the Cook Islands are listed as being “vulnerable” or “endangered.”
The cause, of course, is soup. Sharks all over the world are finned in ever-greater numbers to feed a massive market for shark fins in Asia. A 2000 study by Shelley Clarke and other researchers estimated, after a program to genetically ID fins for years, that the fins of 38 million sharks were traded through the main Hong Kong fin market every year. It was noted that that estimate could range as low as 26 million or as high as 73 million.
Not only do large-scale fishing operations long-line specifically for sharks, but sharks are a very common by-catch in other fisheries, such as tuna, and the valuable fins are often used to pay the crew on those boats. The crew, then, have plenty of incentive to kill as many sharks as possible and not to return them to the water alive.
Until recently, the Cook Islands saw relatively little of this, and their biodiversity is quite good. However, the island nation recently signed an agreement with Chinese fishing interests that will soon begin to work in its waters, and this has PICI and others rushing to try to make the shark sanctuary a reality.
The nations of Palau, the Maldives, Tokelau, the Bahamas, Honduras and the Marshall Islands have already set aside shark refuges.
“Research studies have shown that the population of sharks have declined,” Cramp said. “Their biological characteristics make them unable to keep up with the fishing practices that are happening right now. They’re late to mature, slow growers and have very few pups -- they usually have about 6 to 10 pups, sometimes every two years.”
PICI has met with the prime minister and hopes to help write the sanctuary law with the Ministry of Marine Resources, and then to also put forward a separate Shark Act, to give the ministry two different laws that can be used to prosecute illegal shark fishing. Several shark-fishing regulations are already common on commercial boats, but the laws are easily skirted. Cramp says that, because of abuses, many organizations now are pushing for a zero-take, no-fin policy that bans the practice altogether.
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Top photo: Gray reef shark in the waters off the Cook Islands. Credit: Graham McDonald.
Bottom photo: Steve Lyon and Jessica Cramp of PICI. Credit: PICI.