We often describe ourselves as a conservation project masquerading as a dive shop.
Yes we take people out to the world famous reefs and wrecks of Beqa Lagoon and above all, to our flagship product, the Fiji Shark Dive. But that, and the related commercial activity are merely a means to our ultimate aim which is to protect the Sharks of Fiji.
What started in 2003 with the Fiji Shark Project and resulted in the establishment of Shark Reef Marine Reserve, Fiji’s first MPA dedicated to researching and preserving a local Shark population, has since expanded into a local and global Shark conservation and Shark research venture.
The cornerstone of our efforts remains the hands-on protection of reef environments.
Although our primary goal is to protect Sharks, we know that species protection is only successful if coupled with Habitat Conservation. We also strongly believe in the ethical imperative that we need to assume the stewardship of the areas we dive in and from which we derive our sustenance, not only because we really do love the Ocean but also, because this is nothing more than good, sustainable business.
We are lucky insofar as the indigenous Fijian population has a traditional cultural respect of Sharks and that as a consequence, coastal Shark population are relatively intact. Our approach has been that to involve and to compensate the local stakeholders and we thus very much enjoy the support of the local community and notably, of the local fishermen who have witnessed a miraculous recovery of their fishing yields outside of the reserve.
Despite of the obvious challenges of dealing with various villages and the different personalities and interests within, we have been able to expand the Shark protected area to encompass all of the reefs along approx. 30 miles of the southern coast of Viti Levu. Dubbed the Fiji Shark Corridor, this area comprises the MPAs of Shark Reef, Lake Reef and Combe Reef.
In line with our ultimate goal, we are currently lobbying the Government of Fiji to have them enact wide-ranging Shark protection legislation and we cooperate with various international agencies aiming to achieve the same on a global scale.
Obviously, declaring an area to be a no-fishing zone is just the start.
What then has to happen is effective enforcement and obtaining the consensus and the solidarity of the local community goes a long way to achieving that aim. But with Fish stocks increasing, so does the temptation of poachers and alas, also of game fishermen wanting to bag a record Giant Trevally.
As of this year, all of our staff have been certified as Fish Wardens and we conduct regular patrols keeping any such activities within acceptable limits.
All of what we do is based on sound scientific insights and we are fortunate in being able to avail ourselves of the help of one of the leading Bull Shark experts, Dr. Juerg Brunnschweiler who has been supporting us since the inception of the Project. We also cooperate closely with Fish Taxonomists John Earle and Robert Whitton of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum.
All research we conduct and sponsor has to meet two prerequisites:
– its immediate aim has to be Conservation-oriented
– it has to avail itself of the least invasive techniques
Current research projects comprise:
* maintaining an exhaustive database about the Shark dives. This is the backbone of our research into population dynamics, life cycles, inter- and intra-specific interactions and questions pertaining to the Shark diving industry, namely the effects of our activities on the animals and the optimum procedures we ought to adopt in order to ensure a maximum of safety but also, of enjoyment for our clients
* the Fiji Bull Shark Tagging Programme to investigate the large- and small-scale movements of the Bull Sharks, for which we employ satellite and acoustic telemetry. Whereas the large-scale movement studies are principally aimed at identifying and eventually protecting the Bull Shark nurseries in the rivers, the small-scale movement research is aimed at determining the optimum size and geographical extension of the Shark protected area. Our most recent tagging sequence has the specific aim of testing several hypotheses linking the periodic disappearance of the Bull Sharks in September/October to their birthing and mating cycles.
* exploring TEK and LEK along all of Fiji’s major rivers. Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Local Ecological Knowledge have the potential to improve community-based coastal resource management (CBCRM) by providing baseline data such as information about the presence, behavior and ecology of species inhabiting their environment. Our major aim is to explore the potential of LEK and TEK to identify Shark river habitats in Fiji, to learn how locals regard and use Sharks, and to capture ancestral legends and myths that shed light on the relationship between local people and these animals.
* collecting tissue samples with the aim of contributing to the mapping of the Bull Sharks’ global genome and thus determine whether there are distinct local populations warranting distinct local Conservation measures. The tissue samples are also used in toxicological studies linking the consumption of Shark to dementia and mercury poisoning. We also collect discarded teeth which are being analysed for exposure of the animals to fresh water.
* direct observation of the animals’ behaviour. This research is principally aimed at deciphering dominance and aggression patterns and determining whether Bull Sharks are territorial (probably not) or even social (maybe). It also plays a critical role in helping us better understand how to interact with the Sharks we feed.
* regular Fish counts aimed at recording any changes to the biodiversity within the Reserve and at improving our management of the area. Preliminary results indicate that as a consequence of changed feeding protocols, the Fish population of Shark Reef has evolved from being predator- and scavenger-dominated to one in line with what would be expected of a vibrant and rich reef ecosystem. We have also recorded several range extensions, some of which spectacular and have identified a few Fishes that may well turn out to be new species. The Shark Reef Fish List can be viewed online and is likely to develop into a proper Fiji Fish List that will be set up as a wiki with scientific moderation from Hawaii.
* questionnaires investigating different aspects of Ecotourism and the impressions and expectations of our customers.
The data collected will hopefully enable us to achieve more and better conservation, to better manage the reserve and to develop even better, more eco-friendly and safer procedures.
They also greatly assist us in our educational efforts.
We have developed a Shark Awareness Presentation as part of the Fiji Shark Conservation and Awareness Project, Fiji’s contribution to the International Year of the Shark. We regularly present it to our clients and anybody can download it from the web, together with all relevant notes and references. We will shortly roll it out to the local schools in order to complement our ongoing youth project whereby we train and hire local unemployed school leavers.
We also regularly host Shark Conservation studies for High School and College students that will be soon expanded into proper research internships.
Shark Studies – Academic Treks
Our Outreach hinges on various initiatives, first of which the Fiji Shark Conservation and Awareness Project where we act as coordinators and were able to motivate the relevant Government agencies, along with the who’s who of Fiji’s Tourism industry and conservation NGOs to declare in favour of Sharks. This is the general vehicle under which we produced Fiji’s first ever pro-Shark PSA and helped Stuart Gow of Matava make a remarkable contribution to the Shark Free Marinas Initiative.
We also actively encourage and support any pro-Shark media, be it articles or film productions, by contributing to the story lines and enabling, and even donating the required images whenever necessary.
Our principal vehicle for outreach is however our Fiji Shark Diving Blog.
Apart from its obvious purpose to inform about our activities and initiatives in Fiji and to serve as a proper marketing tool, the blog features regular opinion pieces and pursues several industry- and conservation-related threads that are particularly important to us.
Recurring topics include:
* the sensationalistic portrayal of Sharks by the media and how we, the Shark diving industry need to address that by changing the image of Sharks and refusing to enable and take part in Shark porn
* commercial Shark diving procedures and the need for stringent safety protocols
* our obligation to help preserve Sharks and their habitat
* the global battle against the anti-industry movements that aim at shutting us down
* the need to pursue pragmatic and consensual Shark conservation that focuses on sustainability
* the obligation of science to be conservation oriented and ethical
* new scientific insights and the consequences they have for what we do
* reforming game fishing to practise catch&release and to stop keeping records for dead Sharks that inevitably turn out to be pregnant females. We have formulated our views about Shark Conservation in this policy post.
As of September 1st, 2010 our newest project, Mangroves for Fiji enables us to offset all of our Carbon Emissions by restoring Mangroves. We shall become a completely Carbon Neutral Business by December 2010, after which we will equally offset the Carbon Footprint our clients have incurred when travelling to Fiji.
Mangroves are the rainforests by the Sea.
They are a largely overlooked excellent carbon sink that sequester multiple amounts of carbon when compared to tropical and temperate forests. They are also vital habitats that not only protect the coasts against tsunamis, hurricanes and Sea level change, but directly benefit the adjacent reefs by exporting life-building carbon and above all, by being the nursery areas of countless marine organisms from crustaceans all the way to Sharks. Our Bull Sharks and probably, the Nurses and Lemons all use coastal and riverine habitats as nurseries and this is thus an ideal extension of our shark conservation efforts.
Shark River Project Fiji by Victor Maginnity