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.
Palauan President Johnson Toribiong has repeatedly raised the plight of sharks at the UN, citing studies that show the predators have far greater value as tourist attractions than as a commercial catch.
“The need to protect sharks outweighs the need to enjoy a bowl of soup,” Toribiong said on the sanctuary’s first anniversary. “These creatures are being slaughtered and are at the brink of extinction unless we take positive action to protect them.”
While resources to police the sanctuary are scarce, Thomas Tutii from Palau’s Marine Law Enforcement Division said foreign vessels were getting the message and there had been no finning arrests for more than a year.
“We can’t completely stop illegal shark fishing, but the declaration has been effective,” he said. “We haven’t seen shark fins on board the foreign fishing vessels and they seem to be complying and they are more conscious that they’re not allowed to fish for shark.”
Palau’s move to protect its sharks has prompted other nations, including the Maldives and Honduras, to establish similar sanctuaries.
Richard Brooks, an underwater photographer in Palau, said the sanctuary had helped educate the public that the misunderstood creatures should be respected, not feared.
“They’re a natural part of the eco-system and removing any part of the eco-system, it will change and it will have a domino effect,” he said. “They are actually more scared of humans, than we are of them.”
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