Enforcing protection for Fiji’s sharks

By MOLLY POWERS (The writer is the Fiji Field manager of Coral Reef Alliance) When you put up a traffic light, do you also put a policeman beside it? It’s
17 Mar 2013 13:35

Porbeagle shark.

(The writer is the Fiji Field manager of Coral Reef Alliance)

When you put up a traffic light, do you also put a policeman beside it? It’s true that across the world, there will always be people who run red lights, especially when no one is watching. But for most drivers, knowing that the light exists for public safety and that they would be severely penalised for speeding through a red light is enough to prevent them from breaking the law, even in the dark of night at an empty intersection.
The point of this analogy is that that once laws are socialised, strict enforcement is not as costly or demanding an exercise as some cynics would argue. To add to that, just because something is difficult to enforce, or seemingly ‘unenforceable’ does not mean it is not worth doing.
Last Thursday was a big win for endangered shark and manta ray species around the world. At the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok, representatives from 176 countries upheld a two-thirds vote to protect manta rays, hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, and porbeagle sharks. From now on, international trade in these species will be strictly regulated and any traders will have to apply for licences, or face severe fines and penalties.
While this vote is an important step and represents growing support for shark conservation around the world, it also raises the next natural question: How will such restrictions be enforced? An international body can make this decision in a conference room in Bangkok, but how will it impact coastal fishermen in Palau or tuna long liners in Samoa? Who will regulate trade locally? What will this mean for fisheries agents, fishermen, and fin traders in Fiji?
Ultimately, the effectiveness of a law or international agreement comes down to a government’s ability to enforce it. This requires that training, monitoring, and awareness-raising activities be carried out with all groups involved, from government officers, to commercial fishermen, to onboard observers, to shipping agencies, and the general public.
All of these activities cost money and require manpower. Because both of those are in short supply, we sometimes hear that a certain law is unenforceable. Is this the case with bans and regulations on shark fin trade or the fishing of sharks?
In Fiji, where shark fishing and fin exports continue at pace, we don’t know yet; but we can look to the other island nations in the Pacific that have declared sanctuaries or bans on shark fishing in the last few years including Palau, the Cook Islands, American Samoa, Tokelau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Since Palau declared the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, record numbers of tourists have been travelling to the islands to dive and swim with sharks. To enforce the sanctuary, Palau has received assistance from conservation partners to conduct trainings and patrol their waters. In 2011, Greenpeace assisted in the arrest of a Taiwanese vessel caught killing sharks in Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The operators were fined $US65, 000 and the ship and captain involved were banned from Palau for one year. The President of Palau said the judgment should be seen as a deterrent to foreign fishers.
In the Marshall Islands, the “world’s largest shark sanctuary” was established in 2011.Commercial fishing of any shark is prohibited in the 1.9 million square kilometres of the Marshall Islands’ EEZ. While this is a large territory to patrol, the Marshallese government has received assistance from NGOs as well as the US government. In 2012, there were successful prosecutions of four violations resulting in fines of more than $US235, 000.
According to former Senator Carlotta Leon Guerrero from Guam, “Enforcement doesn’t require creating a new agency for shark protection; it mostly requires some additional training for the conservation officers charged with implementing regulations for tuna, reefs, turtles, and whales.”
Indeed, Fiji is currently enforcing prohibitions on fishing whales, turtles, and certain rare fish such as the humphead wrasse (varivoce). The effectiveness of these enforcements are varied and often debated. Officers in the fisheries department struggle to track down poachers and illegal traders, but for every law in place, new loopholes are discovered and exploited. For example, fisheries officers report that turtle meat is now being sold pre-cooked in markets to avoid detection.
One thing that is not debated, however, is the importance of having these restrictions in place. Without them, or with looser penalties, even more of our ocean resources would be over-exploited. There will always be people running red lights, but as regulations such as the new CITES trade bans on sharks become more widely understood and accepted, they will also become easier to enforce.
Just because enforcement is hard, does not mean it is not worth doing. In fact, it is so important precisely because it is so hard.

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