Shark Reef Marine Reserve
Wainiyabia and Galoa Villages, Viti Levu, Fiji Islands
Fiji Shark Project
Sharks are increasingly becoming endangered on a world-wide scale. The main reason for this is the demand for their fins which are being used for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. The extermination of Asian shark stocks has led to an increase in the price of the fins (currently approximately USD $300/kilo) and this in turn has led Asian fishing operators to target sharks further and further away from their home countries, mainly in the Pacific region. This is being achieved by either securing fishing rights for Asian vessels abroad, or by enticing local fishermen to target the shark stocks, or simply by poaching within the inadequately patrolled economic zones of the Pacific countries. By using long lines offshore but also , in coral reefs habitats (after securing the rights to keep the “by-catch” of what is officially being declared as tuna fishery) , these destructive fishing practises have already led to the complete wiping out of the entire shark population in various locations.
These developments are largely irreversible, as sharks mature late and are slow breeders. Also, as most sharks either lay few and large eggs which are anchored to the substrate, or give birth to living pups, recolonisation of depleted habitats is extremely slow. Without going into detail, scientists perceive this to be hugely detrimental to the marine environment.
Efforts by environmentalists have led to the protection of some shark species, namely in Australia and South Africa. Despite increasing efforts, however, commercial interests are such that the indiscriminate killing of sharks continues largely unabated.
At the same time, sharks are becoming increasingly valuable owing to the emergence of recreational diving as a major source of income for countries in the Tropics. Divers will spend a lot of money and travel to very remote destinations in order to see and capture images of sharks in their natural habitat. Examples of countries with very lucrative shark based tourism are Cocos Island in Costa Rica, the northern Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, South Africa, French Polynesia, Mexico, the Maldives Islands and the Bahamas. Studies which have been conducted in these locations show that the value of one living shark to the local economy might be in excess of USD $10,000 per shark/per annum. This compares to approximately USD $500 as the one-time income from the fins of an average sized shark
THE SHARK DIVE which has been established over the last five years on Shark Fin Reef on southern Viti Levu has all the ingredients to become one of the world’s most famous shark dives. Thousands of divers have already visited this destination and provided for substantial income to the economy of Fiji, in the order of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Fijian Dollars.
The scope of this project is to ensure that the immense value of what has started as a private commercial initiative is being recognised and protected by the Authorities and thus preserved for many generations to come.
1. Description of THE SHARK DIVE
Divers are being taken to Shark Reef, a small reef patch on the fringing reef of Viti Levu, in front of the villages of Wainiyabia and Galoa which own the traditional fishing rights to that portion of the reef.
Following the effects of the 1997 El Nino event, the subsequent coral bleaching and a Tsunami in 2001, the reefs on the southern side of Viti Levu and also within the Beqa Lagoon were affected. This has now started to recover at an unexpectedly fast rate.
However In view of these effects, which led to a drop in the number of his customers, a local dive operator, had the idea of trying to enhance the attractiveness of the location by establishing a dive site where divers could safely encounter sharks. The overwhelming success of his venture hinges on the following cornerstones:
1. In exchange for a “shark levy” of FJD $10/diver/day, Wainiyabia and Galoa villages agree not to fish on Shark Reef (location of THE SHARK DIVE) and to keep away other fishermen. The contribution of the dive to the villages in 2002, when the levy was still FJD $5, has been in the order of FJD $10,000
2. Fiji Fish Ltd. in Suva provides their fish scraps to be fed to the fish. Currently, approximately. 800 kg of fish scraps are thus being reintroduced into the food chain and the environment every week.
3. In order to ensure the safety of the dive, only one operator, Beqa Adventure Divers Ltd, conducts THE SHARK DIVE. By that, the sharks are being conditioned to follow a uniform, predictable and thus safe routine.
Over the years, more and more fish have been attracted to the reef. The number of fish at THE SHARK DIVE site itself is nothing short of spectacular. The availability of regular food has led the foundations for the development of a complete food chain, starting from better coral regrowth, to a myriad of smaller reef fish (267 species were counted in 7 dives in 2004) and culminating in a unique multitude of apex predators which constitute the veritable attraction of THE SHARK DIVE.
The most notable of these very large and usually, rather rare fish which can be seen on any given day on THE SHARK DIVE are:
– 2 Napoleon Wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus
– Giant Trevallies, Caranx ignobilis
– Red Bass, Lutjanus bohar
– 1 Giant Grouper, Epinephelus lanceolatus
all of which already constitute a unique attraction by themselves.
The highlight of THE SHARK DIVE is however the sharks.
Nowhere in the world is it possible to regularly experience seven and sometimes, up to nine species of sharks, some of them very large and rare, on a single dive.
The regular shark population of Shark Reef and THE SHARK DIVE comprises:
– up to 8 Blacktip Reef Sharks, Carcharhinus melanopterus
– up to 7 Silvertip Sharks, Carcharhinus albimarginatus
– up to 30 Grey Reef Sharks, Carcharhinus amblyrhinchos
– up to 8 Whitetip Reef Sharks, Triaenodon obesus
– up to 8 Tawny Nurse Sharks, Nebrius ferrugineus
– up to 2 Sickle-fin Lemon Sharks, Negaprion acutidens
– and finally, as a unique feature which differentiates this dive from comparable locations in French Polynesia (where one can experience the above mentioned sharks during a week’s holiday, but never all together on the same dive) up to a dozen (from over 50 recorded) Bull Sharks, Carcharhinus leucas, a very large and rarely encountered species which can only be regularly seen at one other location, Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas.
All of these sharks are merely interested in the fish which is being fed to them by the very experienced Fijian dive guides, and not at all in the divers.
In this context, it has to be noted that in the course of thousands upon thousands of shark feeds which have been regularly conducted world wide during the last two decades, not a single tourist has ever been injured by a shark.
Until recently, THE SHARK DIVE has been a “hot” destination which was handed by word-of-mouth among professional underwater photographers and elite amateurs – and an exhilarating experience for those lucky tourist divers who happened to chance upon it.
Following an intensification of marketing efforts by the dive operator, THE SHARK DIVE is now fast becoming an international attraction.
On the negative side, however, the increasing notoriety of THE SHARK DIVE is already leading to increased fishing pressure, presumably by the inhabitants of adjacent settlements who do not seem to respect the customary fishing rights of the Village. An indication for this deplorable development is the increasing number of big fish with hooks or even leaders trailing from their mouths. Fortunately, most of the fish targeted are far too powerful to succumb to fishermen using conventional techniques.
We however fear that sooner than later, somebody might be tempted to lay out a long line in order to specifically target the sharks which frequent THE SHARK DIVE.
If done properly, this would without a doubt immediately (i.e. in the course of merely a couple of nights) wipe out the shark population and thus irrevocably destroy a potential source of substantial income but also, pride and international recognition for the local community but also, the Country itself.
It is the aim of this Project to:
– prevent the above by emergency measures , namely by having the site immediately declared a marine preserve by the relevant Authorities.
– once that is achieved , substantially increase the revenues from the site for the operator , the local community , the Country but above all, Wainiyabia village as in the long term , we are convinced that only these commercial interests will be the best guarantee against anybody attempting to kill the fish population of Shark Reef.
1. Synopsis of the Project
As already stated above, the Project is two-pronged, with an immediate protection plan and a long-term development plan.
Short – Term
In view of recent developments, it appears essential that THE SHARK DIVE dive site be officially protected at once. Only this will ensure that subsequent developments can happen in an orderly and structured way. A first proposal for a small marine park at Shark Reef has been drawn up by the dive operator (Beqa Adventure Divers Ltd) together with the village and submitted already in 2002. In view of the urgency of the present situation, it would be highly desirable if ways could be found to substantially speed up the approval process.
We thus appeal to the foresight of the Authorities to immediately secure THE SHARK DIVE dive site’s potential. With everybody involved (foremost of which the Villages) agreeing on the desirability of such a protected zone, formal procedures should be simple if only given the required urgent attention.
If suitably exploited in the media (which we can easily facilitate), this would also undoubtedly attract immediate, high-profile international positive recognition for the Country and its visionary Leadership.
Once that has been achieved, valuable time will be gained to implement the below measures.
Long – Term
The long-term strategy of the Project hinges on one fundamental and central assumption: namely, that essentially, Nature is not being depleted by people who want to destroy it, but merely by people seeking to earn a decent living.
And that any attempt at Conservation must focus on providing for a suitable commercial alternative whereby the same people who would otherwise destroy the Environment are been given the opportunity of earning an equal if not superior income for preserving it.
Thus, the primary aim of the Project is to provide the villagers of Wainiyabia and Galoa, who would otherwise go fishing on Shark Reef, with a superior income for protecting the same reef and its marine life.
Likewise, the local community and the Country itself should benefit commercially from THE SHARK DIVE dive site, be it in terms of direct cash flow, but also in terms of its reputation for being mindful of the need to conserve its marine environment.
The second, equally important assumption which applies to this specific Project is that it should be run as a good business. Therefore, it should be self-funding, generate good, sustainable, transparent earnings and require minimal bureaucracy. It is our belief that by this, one could create a win-win situation for everybody involved and ultimately, for Shark Reef and its marine creatures.
The source of the cash flow allowing for the above are to be tourists, preferably high net worth diving enthusiasts who would not only pay for THE SHARK DIVE itself, but also generate additional income for a multitude of local operators, be it hotels, restaurants, tour operators or souvenir shops.
Without getting into details which would by far surpass the scope of this short presentation, efforts will focus on the following:
Wainiyabia and Galoa Villages: at present, the village gets money essentially for doing nothing. As a consequence, there is little identification or pride with the dive itself, as the money remains a largely anonymous contribution. Efforts to change this could focus on establishing:
– a small souvenir industry catering specifically to the divers
– paid-for monitoring of the dive site
– village visits , mekes etc
– the sale of produce to the dive operators (e.g. snacks for in-between dives)
Dive Operator: the task of further developing his business lies mainly with the dive operator himself. It is however in the interest of the long-term viability of the Project that the dive operation be professional and economically successful. The Project Team will assist in achieving this goal by:
– helping to optimise the current procedures and infrastructure in order to be able to cater to a more sophisticated and lucrative client
– substantially increasing the international awareness and prestige of the dive via a focused marketing campaign
To this effect , several very reputable and famous diving celebrities , film-makers , scientists , diving media and international dive travel operators have already pledged their full support to our cause and are eagerly awaiting further developments in this matter .
Further interested Circles: other planned initiatives focus on :
– the increased involvement of the local community , by spreading the business to local operators but also , by creating goodwill via a local awareness campaign
– scientific shark research in cooperation with the USP and international experts
– education of the public about the marine life of Shark Reef and Conservation in general
– cooperation with the Authorities and possibly , selected Conservation-oriented NGOs in order to expand the concept to a wider area which from an ecological point of view, would provide for better stability and resilience to natural and other disasters
As stated above , all of the long-term initiatives depend necessarily on the success of immediately protecting Shark Reef , which therefore remains the main focus of our present efforts .
Once we have achieved that goal , there will be ample time to discuss and if necessary , refine any further developments.
Failing that , we might be left with nothing but a lot of exciting plans and no more fish worth protecting.