There are moments in life that take your breath away. Not the best idea when scuba diving, however hard to avoid when the moments involve looking into the eyes of sharks.
I had one such moment lined up in the current alongside a dozen gray reef sharks on the ocean floor of the south pass in Fakarava, deep in the islands of French Polynesia. This moment, as we all basked in the flow together, changed not just the way I felt about sharks but extinguished a level of fear that I had regarding being in the ocean.
Fakarava, the second largest atoll in the Tuamotus and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, has a narrow pass on the south side that is only 200 meters wide and said to hold up to 750 resident sharks and the largest density of spawning grouper on the planet. Every year, around the full moon in July, approximately 17,000 grouper gather to partake in a great spectacle of nature, mass spawning.
The narrow pass creates a unique marine environment with the transition between pelagic (open sea) and lagoonal life as outgoing tides deliver a mass of food – from plankton to fish of many sizes – to more than satisfy the sharks and their prey. In addition to being protected as a designated shark sanctuary in French Polynesia – one of the largest in the world – the south pass of the Fakarava atoll is fished by less than a dozen people, which means the spawning aggregation has remained healthy. Healthy fish stocks, healthy predators.
Prominent scientists and marine biologists look to the existence of sharks – apex predators that sit at the top of the food chain – as a sign of the health of a marine eco-system, proof of sustainable biomass. But we have a real problem. During this century our sharks have rapidly disappeared. Where have they all gone? Fished out of the sea. Why? Shark fins are one of the most valuable seafood items on the planet.
In a booming Asian economy, a spoonful of shark fin soup (which can cost up to $100 a bowl) is an overt demonstration of prestige – the primary cause of international demand for shark fins. With shark carcasses being bulky and worth less money, the practice of “shark finning” (removing fins and throwing bleeding carcasses overboard) has become common, using only between one per cent to five per cent of the shark. According to reports, every year humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide, with a majority of them targeted for their fins which end up in the global fin trade. Annually, sharks kill between five and 15 people. Who is the most dangerous predator? We are.
Nicolas Buray moved to Moorea from France in 1998 and started working as a dive instructor. While working at the dive center, he studied at CRIOBE, which is a marine biology-focused field station located on Moorea for the French-based Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etude (EPHE). He remembers the day that the fax came into his dive center. A Chinese dealer of shark fins living in French Polynesia sent a blanket outreach to businesses and professionals related to the sea with an offer that was too good to pass up for many Polynesians: a new source of income through obtaining shark fins. It was early in the 2000s, and some locals saw this as a chance to get steady and reliable income from a source that was guaranteeing that their bounty would be highly regarded and compensated.
But in the Pacific Islands, sharks have long held ecological, economic, and cultural significance, representing an important ʻaumakua in mythology – a god or deified ancestor. The appearance of an ʻaumakua is often believed to be an omen of good will, and it is considered extremely bad luck to harm one. In 2004, fishermen from Rangiroa were cutting lemon shark fins in front of several people. When people tried to intervene, the fishermen got aggressive and the scene was caught on film. Seeing the realities of what was happening, shock turned to action and dive centers around French Polynesia created a petition to stop the shark mutilation which received 60,000 signatures.
Due to this petition, and in an effort to combat the effects of finning, in April of 2006, the government of French Polynesia declared a shark fishing and finning moratorium, forbidding the killing of sharks within the 5 million square kilometers of the Polynesian EEZ (exclusive economic zone). At the time, the edible mako shark was excluded in this ban to appease local fishing interests. In December of 2012, the mako shark was included under the protection of French Polynesia, a group of five major archipelagos with more than 100 islands. The area soon became one of the largest shark sanctuaries in the world.
As of today, all species of sharks – including lemon, tiger, gray reef, blacktip, whitetip, black fin, silvertips, mako, hammerhead and thresher sharks – are under protection from fishing, finning, and the import and export of all or parts of these valuable species. The idea that a shark is worth more alive than dead is being respected, and an increase in tourism-related efforts surrounding marine conservation and shark observation are putting French Polynesia on the global ocean conservation map.
As we sat on the ocean floor off the coast of Moorea, ten-foot lemon sharks circled us and acknowledged our presence now and then with a closer pass, but in general remained uninterested and went about their day. It was shocking to me that my fear of these magnificent creatures had kept me from truly experiencing the ocean in all its glory for so many years. Hanging out in the shark line up in the south pass of Fakarava, I looked left, right- into the eyes of sharks. It almost felt like they were smiling at me. That's when I realised sharks are really more friend than foe. Away with the fear. Let’s start getting to know the ocean, from the inside out. Shark love continues today.
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