Wed, Jan 05, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Sharks find solace in their first sanctuary in Palau

AFP, KOROR, PALAU

A shark swims at the famous Blue Corner dive site in the Pacific island nation of Palau in this undated photo obtained from underwater photographer Richard Brooks on Nov. 17.

PHOTO: AFP

The shark — feared as a bloodthirsty killer and hunted to the brink of extinction in many parts of the world — has found a passionate champion in the tiny Pacific nation of Palau.

With just one aging patrol boat policing an area of ocean roughly the size of France, Palau says it has still managed to make significant inroads curbing the illegal fishing that threatens the marine predators’ survival.

The country declared the world’s first shark sanctuary in September 2009, banning shark fishing in its exclusive economic zone, which covers almost 630,000km2 of the northern Pacific.

Palau Shark Sanctuary founder Dermot Keane, an Irishman who dedicated himself to saving the animals after first visiting the archipelago in 1995, said foreign fishing vessels hunting shark were once common in Palau waters.

The trade feeds Asia’s appetite for shark fin soup, a delicacy that has increased in popularity as the region’s wealth has grown, putting pressure on shark populations across the globe, Keane said.

Shark fishing commonly involves a practice known as finning that entails hacking the fins off captured sharks then throwing their bodies back into the sea to die.

“When I first came here, there were 50 or 60 shark boats working the waters,” Keane said. “They had shark fins hanging from the rigging.”

“Not only was it visually offensive for someone who came here as a tourist to scuba dive, the smell was pretty awful too. The sight of shark fins laid out to dry on the boats was not a positive image for Palau,” he said.

The Pew Environment Group estimates up to 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, which fetch up to US$100 a kilogram on the black market.

It says sharks are slow to reproduce, making them unsuitable for commercial fishing.

Keane, who now helps run a diving business after moving to Palau permanently in 1997, said that as top predators sharks had a vital ecological role and the country was determined to protect the 130 species found in its waters.

“We’re seeing less and less of the pelagic [deep water] sharks,” he said. “With their removal an unbalanced food chain results, changing the way the natural environment functions.”

The Irishman began campaigning to halt finning in the late 1990s and hit upon the idea of a shark sanctuary after finding many members of the public found gruesome images of mutilated sharks too confrontational.

“It was very much a blood and guts message of showing people pictures of sharks and fins and trying to explain what was going on,” he said. “At the same time, through my work, I was trying to promote Palau as a tourist destination and I was concerned I was working against myself.”

“So I started looking for a way to save sharks which was positive and that’s how I arrived at the idea,” he said.

Keane admitted there was initially skepticism about offering protection to a predator many seafaring communities regard not only as a deadly threat to their own lives, but also as competition for fish stocks.

“At first, if you were to press the locals about whether they were for or against it [shark finning], most of them, even though they weren’t directly involved in it would say ‘never mind the sharks, they take our fish,’” he said.

Since then, attitudes have changed in the nation of about 21,000 people, making it one of the world’s leading advocates for shark preservation.

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