Last Friday was World Oceans Day. I have always loved the ocean, and was fortunate enough to live at the beaches of southern Delaware a few years ago where I could surf, fish, and take my dog for a swim in the ocean and bay any time I wished. To me, the ocean is symbolic and awe-inspiring, capable of evoking unbridled happiness and intense fear. She commands constant respect; take her for granted for only a second and she will furiously slap you back into submission.
But the world’s oceans are rapidly being depleted of the species that make them what they are. Poachers are snatching coral, rays, and aquatic species of all kinds at an unsustainable rate. Perhaps the worst are the shark poachers, who typically catch sharks, cut off their dorsal fins, and toss them carelessly back into the ocean to die. One Washington Post article states that “reef sharks in the Pacific have declined more than 90 percent in recent decades”.
Recently, several shark poachers were caught off the coast of Indonesia among a group of islands known as Raja Ampat, a marine protected area (MPA) and a place I have long wanted to visit – it may be one of the most beautiful areas on earth.
Part of the Bird’s Head Seascape, it is an area that naturally boasts sea turtle nesting, colorful coral, shark and ray breeding grounds, and a multitude of species not seen anywhere else. It is protected by proud, trained villagers working on patrols with local police dedicated to maintaining it’s diversity. A Conservation International (CI) article says:
“Despite its global importance, the area was previously a hotbed of illegal activities such as dynamite fishing and shark finning from outside fishermen. However, in 2006 the local Kawe tribal leaders decided enough was enough. With support from CI, they declared a 155,000-hectare (383,000-acre) MPA in a bottom-up process that included a declaration both by the Papuan traditional Adat council as well as the Raja Ampat government. This was eventually followed by a national declaration affording it the highest level of protection for any MPA in Papua. The Kawe communities took it one step further, declaring over 97.5 percent of the MPA as a “no-take zone” through a traditional Papuan sasi declaration, meaning that no fishing of any kind is allowed within this area. With this declaration they made the Kawe MPA into the single largest no-take zone in all of the Coral Triangle, a region stretching from Indonesia to the Philippines and the Solomon Islands. In addition, in 2011 the area was additionally protected under the Raja Ampat shark sanctuary decree, which forbids any shark and ray fishing anywhere in Raja Ampat,” (http://blog.conservation.org/2012/05/shark-poachers-chased-down-by-indonesian-communities-police/).
Unfortunately, as is the case everywhere, some choose to disregard the regulations. In this poaching case, seven boats of fishermen were rounded up for illegal fishing after they tried to evade capture. Long lines and air compressors, gear commonly used in shark fishing, were found on board their vessels. Sharks, still alive but bleeding after being hacked apart, were struggling and dying on the boats. Piles of shark fins, sea cucumbers, and rays were confiscated, and the estimated price of the catch and the gear amounted to approximately 1.5 billion rupiah (about US$ 160,000). The Washington Post states that “sharks are used to make shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, and sea cucumbers are sought by Japanese diners“. This Post article also has a link to an interesting article about shark’s fin soup.
The most frustrating thing about this case is that there was not enough man-power to physically capture and prosecute the poachers – it was night and law enforcement had only one boat. Although an official arrest was made and they were ordered to report for processing the next morning, the poachers fled. The government has pledged to pursue them.
On a positive note, this shows the willingness of local governments to protect their natural resources from poachers. But in the world’s most remote areas, enforcement of the laws may be difficult if not impossible, due to scarce resources and a lack of personnel. However, it CAN happen… check out this article about Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Park at the tip of the Baja Peninsula – in just 10 years, the amount of fish in the area has increased more than 460 PERCENT! This amazing feat was achieved solely by strict enforcement of protection laws by locals, and has resulted in not only an incredible recovery of what was once a depleted natural resource area, but in a revenue-generating eco-tourism boom! The article also has a beautiful one minute underwater video of the HOARDES of fish that thrive in the area.
I celebrated World Oceans Day by concentrating on the positive victories. Eliminating poaching CAN be done. Let’s learn from this example and keep pushing. Our oceans depend on it.