Sharks At Risk As Traditions Decline, Discovery, 05/25/07
By Jennifer Vlegas
Weather disasters, economic pressures and other problems have disrupted the lives of Pacific Islanders near Australia to the point that they too are now mismanaging their natural resources. This shift has led to dangerous declines, and even collapses, of shark, other fish and marine stocks, according to a new study.
The conclusion comes in the wake of new detailed analysis of coral reef fisheries in the Solomon Islands, which have a population of around 500,000 people mostly from the Nggela culture. The Nggela traditionally believe in ancestor and nature spirits that can "curse" anyone who breaks fishing prohibitions.
"But traditional management tends to fall apart when the external pressure increases," said Simon Foale, author of the new study, which has been accepted for publication in the International Social Science Journal.
Foale is a James Cook University researcher who is also with the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
"There is a common desire among western observers to embrace a Rousseau-like image of Pacific Islanders as somehow living in harmony and balance with nature, and more importantly exercising ancient, traditional resource management institutions," Foale told Discovery News.
Foale believes low human population densities in these areas primarily kept marine resources in check in the past. But now population and export market growth have contributed to the current imbalance.
Analysis of fisheries in the islands determined that harvesting practices there are "unsustainable." At particular risk are sea cucumbers, trochus (a mollusk with a desirable pearly shell) and numerous fish, including sharks. The sharks are mostly sought for their fins, which can fetch high prices in places like Asia, where they are added to folk remedies and soups.
"Shark fisheries are inherently vulnerable to over-fishing due to the very slow growth rate of most shark species, and their low fecundity," he explained, adding "there are no controls on shark fishing in the Solomon Islands."
A ban was placed on Beche-de-mer (sea slug) fishing in the region, but that was relaxed after a recent, deadly tsunami washed over the islands.
Sean Van Sommeran, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, CA, told Discovery News that the indigenous problems witnessed in the Solomon Islands are comparable to what is happening across the globe.
"There are no more remote areas of the planet now," Van Sommeran said, mentioning the Galapagos Islands, Madagascar, Tasmania, Fiji and the Congo as other areas where natural resources also are under threat.
Van Sommeran said wealthier foreign individuals sometimes go to such places and offer the indigenous people trucks and other bribe-like incentives to meet demands, even if that means overfishing. More endangered species yield higher prices due to their rarity, so the problem escalates.
Both researchers hope better governmental regulations may ease the current situation.
Ecotourism could also help since, as Van Sommeran said, "it fosters indigenous participation and employment" in the process.