On World Oceans Day, WWF Pacific talks about work in Fiji and the WCPO to protect sharks and rays while supporting tuna fishing

 

SUVA The Government of Fiji has been an active advocate of the conservation and management of sharks and rays.

Fiji has taken a number of critical steps at the global level to better protect sharks These include the signing and ratifying of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in 1992; agreement to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1997; and becoming a party to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) in 2013, where Fiji has since successfully included reef mantas (Manta alfredi and Manta birostris) and all species of mobula rays under the appendices of the convention.

In 2016, Fiji made history by becoming the first Pacific Island country to propose global trade restrictions on sharks and rays to ensure their survival and, in doing so, silky sharks, all three species of thresher sharks and nine species of mobula rays were listed on Appendix II of CITES after a series of landslide votes at the 17th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Johannesburg, South Africa. Fiji had also successfully lobbied for the inclusion of reef mantas (Manta alfredi and Manta birostris) and all species of mobula rays under the appendices of the CMS in 2014.

Fiji is also a member of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the international treaty organisation which manages fisheries of highly migratory fish stocks, mainly tuna, in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. In December 2019, WCPFC member states adopted an updated and binding conservation and management measure (CMM) for sharks, which came into effect on 1 November 2020.

The measure, although allowing fisheries to implement alternatives, includes a catch and retention ban on oceanic whitetip and silky sharks as well as a “fins-naturally attached” policy, which means vessels must retain and land the entire shark carcass with all fins intact. It is the most effective way to eliminate wasteful practice of shark finning, which involves cutting fins of sharks and discarding the carcass at sea.

At the national level, sharks are protected under Fiji’s Endangered and Protected Species Act, which regulates and controls the trade of any species listed under CITES as well as indigenous species not administered by CITES. The Offshore Fisheries Management Act 2012 and its regulations regulate the use of fishing gear used to catch fish (including sharks), as well as restrictions relating to the catch, sale and possession, among other things, of the shark species listed under Appendix I & II of CITES. In 2019, a shark fin import and export ban was implemented.

The oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) generally lives in the open ocean. Accompanied in photo by pilot fish. Photo: Doug Perrine-WWF

The oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) generally lives in the open ocean. Photo: Doug Perrine/WWF

Why are countries such as Fiji taking steps to better protect shark species?

Sharks evolved around 400 million years ago and have outlived dinosaurs. There are more than 1,200 species, and they play many key roles in marine ecosystems. They do not simply dwell in the ocean; they shape it – making them indispensable to ocean health and the wellbeing of millions of people across the globe. Beyond their intrinsic value, oceanic sharks and rays are important for food, human livelihoods, tourism, and their ecological roles.

Global shark populations are rapidly declining, despite the increased observations and reports of sharks in Fiji waters recently. A recent study revealed that global populations of open-ocean sharks and rays have declined by 71% since the 1970s due to an 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure. Half of all the 31 species of oceanic sharks and rays are now either critically endangered or endangered according to the IUCN Red List.

Insufficient species-specific data continues to thwart efforts to manage sharks and rays. Much of the data required for effective fisheries management depends on reports provided by trained observers onboard fishing vessels. However, the minimum 5% observer coverage of vessels required by many tuna regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) remains far lower than what is required to provide representative fisheries data of the whole fishery. This hinders science-based management of sharks and rays, as well as other commercial fisheries such as tuna, and effectively prevents any meaningful monitoring and compliance.

Shark bycatch is also a major issue faced by the global longline fishery and the Fiji offshore tuna fishery is working diligently to address the issue with partners and stakeholders, including WWF. Bycatch is the unintentional catch of non-targeted species. Sharks continue to make up a large percentage of annual bycatch in Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO).

Data from the WCPFC 16th session of the Scientific Committee (SC16) reveal that there were an estimated total of 2,448 interactions with different shark species by Fiji’s longliners in 2019. In 2017, there were a total of 6,355 shark interactions. In 2018, there were 4,311 shark interactions. This data is taken from national observer reports, with actual figures estimated to be much higher with 16.02% observer coverage for 2019, 32.25% observer coverage for 2018, and 29.9% observer coverage for 2017.

The decline in shark interactions over these years could be linked to the implementation of relevant shark management measures, including:

  • the ban on the use of trace wires and other restricted fishing gears as outlined in the Offshore Fisheries Management Act 2012 (Fiji), along with its regulations on the use of circle hooks
  • deep setting
  • prohibited use of shark lines
  • and improved observer coverage over the years.

Reduced interactions could also be an early signal of overexploitation, meaning that the interactions are reducing because there are perhaps fewer oceanic sharks in Fiji’s waters.

However, perhaps because of Fiji’s unparalleled shark conservation efforts, an increased number of interactions with sharks in the offshore sector have been reported through first-hand accounts and reports from fishing captains and crew on board Fiji-flagged longliners. An article in the Fiji Times on 23 January 2021, “Sharks trouble longline fleet” reported that this is resulting in the loss of fish bait and gear (hooks and lines) and indicates that shark numbers are actually increasing. There were suggestions from the longline sector that because of the large numbers of sharks observed by crew on fishing vessels, the ban on shark finning should be lifted for a few years to control population numbers. According to the news article, the species of sharks that posed a problem for fishing vessels in Fiji waters were the blue shark (Prionace glauca), oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), mako sharks and thresher sharks (Alopias species).

A scalloped hammerhead shark in waters near Fiji. Photo Cat Holloway.

A scalloped hammerhead shark in waters near Fiji. Photo Cat Holloway.

Vilisoni Tarabe, WWF-Pacific’s Sustainable Fisheries and Seafood Fisheries Policy Officer, said that despite the perception of greater numbers of sharks and suggestions that the ban on shark finning be lifted, there was a need to improve current measures across the region.

“Data from the Fiji country reports submitted by Fiji Ministry of Fisheries to the WCPFC over the past three years that have been verified by certified national observers show that Fiji-flagged fishing vessels are interacting less with sharks,” Mr Tarabe said.

“The species of sharks mentioned are also listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, where the blue shark is listed as near threatened, the oceanic whitetip listed as critically endangered, the mako sharks are listed as endangered, the pelagic thresher shark is listed as endangered, and the common and bigeye thresher sharks are listed as vulnerable to extinction.

“The oceanic whitetip shark population in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean has declined by 95%.

“It is important that current measures, such as the shark-fin import-and-export ban for example, are left in place or strengthened, and that steps are taken by all WCPFC members to ensure compliance with the WCPFC shark measure (CMM 2019-04), which came into force on 1 November 2020, to help protect all shark species.

“We also need to continue working with our industry partners to improve awareness of these iconic species and to lead the way in terms of applying best practice bycatch mitigation,” Mr Tarabe highlighted.

Globally, WWF is calling on all contracting parties of the four major tuna RFMOs to implement a set of urgently needed measures – including to increase observer coverage on all industrial fishing vessels to 100% by 2030 and to introduce recovery plans for all critically endangered and endangered oceanic sharks and rays by 2026 – in order to prevent extinctions of heavily depleted populations of pelagic sharks and rays and to support their recovery.

“Shark depredation is also an issue that can cause a range of negative impacts both ecological and economical. It is where a shark partially or completely consumes hooked fish and bait from a fishing gear before it is retrieved to the fishing vessel. This mostly occurs on commercial and recreational fisheries around the world and despite its negative impacts on the fisheries, it is still an understudied topic compared to other fisheries issues.  Bycatch mitigation information from on-going research and the testing of shark deterrent approaches can help in mitigating shark depredation,” Mr Tarabe added,

WWF continues to provide support towards Fiji’s shark conservation measures to ensure that they are met. This includes assisting the Fiji Government and aligned stakeholders in the development of Fiji’s National Plan of Action for Sharks implementing the WCPFC shark management measure (CMM 2019-04).

Assistance has included providing bycatch guidelines, Bycatch best handling practices: a guideline for skippers and crew on longline fishing vessels in Fiji and Best practice for bycatch mitigation in Fiji’s tuna longline fishery: for vessel owners and operators, to strengthen bycatch mitigation efforts within Fiji’s offshore fisheries sector by ensuring skippers and crew have a visual aid onboard that they may refer to ensure bycatch of sharks and other species are appropriately released.

Bycatch mitigation toolkits and awareness materials are also being supplied to Fiji-flagged offshore longliners to improve safer handling of bycatch, including sharks on board these vessels, and to further strengthen Fiji’s bycatch mitigation efforts.

Sam Weon and the staff of Green Tuna Fisheries receive bycatch mitigation toolkits and awareness materials for fishing vessels. Photo: WWF-Pacific/Ravai Vafo’ou.

Sam Weon and the staff of Green Tuna Fisheries receive bycatch mitigation toolkits and awareness materials for fishing vessels. Photo: WWF-Pacific/Ravai Vafo’ou.

The supply of the bycatch mitigation toolkits was supported by the By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management (BIEM) Initiative implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) under the Pacific–European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) programme funded by the European Union and the Government of Sweden and by the New Zealand government through the Developing Sustainable and Responsible Tuna Longline Fisheries in Fiji project that is a project partnership between the Fiji Fishing Industry Association, Ministry of Fisheries Fiji, Fiji Maritime Academy and WWF.

A number of key activities will be implemented through the BIEM project. These include:

  • awareness raising, educating and building the capacity of tuna longline skippers and their crews on bycatch best practice and policy through a port-based extension programme
  • supporting the uptake of proven bycatch mitigation techniques and tools, including providing the necessary equipment and reference materials to facilitate this
  • providing scholarships to improve understanding of bycatch mitigation practices of deckhands in Fiji’s longline fishery through the Fiji Maritime Academy’s Fishing Deckhand Course, which includes a module on bycatch mitigation.

Jamie Davies, the BIEM Initiative Manager at SPREP, added his support for the initiative.

“SPREP is committed to supporting Pacific countries deliver their international, regional and national commitments to reduce bycatch of all threatened, endangered and protected species,” Mr Davies said.

“We are extremely pleased to have funding through the PEUMP programme to work directly with ministries, industry and NGOs to provide equipment and training to skippers and crew that will help them minimise interactions and, ultimately, death of species that play such an important role in oceanic ecosystems as well as Pacific cultures.”

Sunshine Fisheries crew with their General Manager, Darren Zhang, receive their bycatch awareness materials for fishing vessels. Photo: WWF-Pacific/Ravai Vafo'ou.

Sunshine Fisheries crew with their General Manager, Darren Zhang, receive their bycatch awareness materials for fishing vessels. Photo: WWF-Pacific/Ravai Vafo’ou.

SPREP is leading key result area 5 of the PEUMP programme, the BIEM Initiative, to support the governments of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu in the sustainable management of coastal and marine biodiversity.

The BIEM Initiative consists of eight integrated areas consisting of:

  • marine spatial planning
  • integrated “ridge to reef” ecosystem strategies and coastal zone management planning
  • development and integration of climate change adaptation strategies into coastal community plans
  • assessment of bycatch of endangered species and extinction risk
  • development and implementation of bycatch mitigation strategies
  • capacity development through research grants to citizens of Pacific island countries
  • support for community monitoring and protection of endangered species
  • capacity development of the non-detriment findings process for CITES

Human rights and gender equality will be core considerations in the development and implementation of each of these components.

 

For more information, contact Duncan Williams, SFS Programme Manager, WWF-Pacific, dwilliams@wwfpacific.org; or Jamie Davies, BIEM Initiative Manager, SPREP, jamied@sprep.org.

 

Header image: A silky shark is hooked in ocean waters near Fiji. Photo: Cat Holloway.

 

About WWF

WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organisations, with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. More information: panda.org.

About SPREP

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) is the premiere intergovernmental regional environmental organisation of the Pacific, with 21 Pacific Island members and 5 metropolitan members. SPREP’s mandate is to promote cooperation in the Pacific region and provide assistance in order to protect and improve its environment and to ensure sustainable development for present and future generations. SPREP’s core priorities are climate change resilience, ecosystem and biodiversity protection, environmental governance, and waste management and pollution control. It is guided by its vision for the future: “A resilient Pacific environment, sustaining our livelihoods and natural heritage in harmony with our cultures”. More information: www.sprep.org.

About PEUMP

The Pacific–European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) Programme addresses some of the most serious challenges faced by Pacific countries. Among these are the increasing depletion of coastal fisheries resources; the threats to marine biodiversity, including negative impacts of climate change and disasters; the uneven contribution of oceanic fisheries to national economic development; the need for improved education and training; and the need to mainstream a rights-based approach and to promote greater recognition of gender issues to ensure inclusiveness and positive changes for Pacific Island people. This five-year PEUMP programme is funded by the European Union (€35 million) and the Government of Sweden (€10 million). It is implemented by the Pacific Community (SPC), the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the University of the South Pacific (USP) in close collaboration with non-government organisations and the national authorities. More information: www.peump.dev.