The Cook Islands established the world’s largest continuous shark sanctuary last month, enforcing heavy fines on violators who are found with any part of a shark on board their vessel in the 1.997 million sq. km (771,000 sq. miles) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The sanctuary protects all sharks from targeted fishing and aims to prevent possession, sale, and trade of shark products. The animals are often killed to satisfy the high demand of shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy that sells upwards of $100 a bowl. Sharks targeted for this purpose are often thrown back into the ocean after their fins have been cut off, making it impossible for them to survive.
As many as one-third of all open ocean shark species face the threat of extinction, and the reduction in their numbers severely affect the ecosystem around them – especially since it often takes years for a shark to mature and since they have very few young.
In June 2012, there were reports that three tons of shark fins were found aboard an Asian fishing vessel in the Cook Islands, which led to a parliamentary debate over the extent of the problem. There is no data on the number of sharks killed in the Cook Islands each year, which makes it difficult to estimate the severity of shark fishing.
The Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI) spent more than 18 months gathering support for a much-needed sanctuary, after which the Cook Islands declared the entire 1.997 million sq. km EEZ, an area the size of Mexico, a sanctuary protecting sharks, rays, and elasmobranchs. Violators of the sanctuary’s regulations will be fined between $100,000 NZD ($84,000 USD) and $250,000 NZD ($210,550 USD).
Jess Cramp, program manager at PICI, said her group’s campaign was difficult at first and struggled to garner support from Cook Island legislators. The group was met with heavy opposition until it began to get the island community involved.
“We were met with strong opposition from the head of fisheries at first. So much that it made us question why he was so defensive about banning shark fishing,” Cramp said. “So what we did then is we went out into the community and we gave community presentations, we sent letters to the community we couldn’t reach – because it was expensive to get to the outer islands – and we began to acquire what we called ‘shark ambassadors.’”
Cramp and PICI Founder Stephen Lyon spent 18 months meeting with fisheries, collecting scientific data, and gathering community support to make their case to the Ministry of Marine Resources. Once the international media picked up on the campaign, PICI received funding from groups including the Pew Environment Group. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Cook Islands in August, Cramp stopped her at the Pacific Leaders Forum and told her about the campaign for a shark sanctuary.
Clinton appeared to be excited about the project, especially since she had just discussed wildlife protection with one of her staffers, Cramp said.
In the Cook Islands, sharks are revered as ‘guardians’, and emphasizing that part of the island’s culture was immensely effective in prompting others to support the cause.
“This is something that the locals really grasped onto,” Cramp said, proceeding to explain the arguments that incited Cook Islanders to believe in their cause. “‘We’re not eating the sharks, we’re not making any money off of these foreign vessels coming into our waters eating our sharks. They’re important for the ecosystem, they can’t keep up with the fishing pressures and oh by the way, these are important to our culture. So we can make both an environmental and political statement by standing up and protecting these creatures.’”
On Dec. 12, 2012, Minister of Marine Resources Teina Bishop announced the Cabinet’s approval of the shark sanctuary, just days after French Polynesia included the mako shark as part of an 8-year moratorium on shark fishing. Although the Cook Islands have only identified 18 species of sharks in its water, the neighboring Polynesian islands have identified 40 species and the Cooks are thought to have the same number. The critically endangered oceanic whitetip sharks, blue sharks, hammerhead sharks, and whale sharks have all been found aboard fishing vessels and will now be safeguarded.
“The Cooks in particular are quite savvy,” Cramp said. “They don’t just roll over and let things happen.”
With the new regulations in place, Cook Islanders can rest assured that their ‘guardians’ will themselves be protected in the open ocean while sanctuary violators will be heavily prosecuted.