How the Pacific Region Paved the Path to Successful Shark Conservation

A decade of conservation changed a species’ image from villain to vulnerable

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How the Pacific Region Paved the Path to Successful Shark Conservation
A shark swims through protected waters after the Marshall Islands declared a shark sanctuary in 2011.
Shawn Heinrichs

This is the eighth in a series of articles commemorating a decade of shark conservation work.

Sharks are vital animals—to a healthy global ocean and, in many regions, to the economy and culture. Recognizing this, Pacific Island nations have created eight shark sanctuaries throughout the region—in the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau, and Samoa—that cover more than 17.1 million square kilometers (6.6 million square miles), along with the first regional shark sanctuary. These countries have also supported or led on proposals to list sharks and rays on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).

To learn more about shark conservation in the region, The Pew Charitable Trusts caught up with Carlotta Leon Guerrero, a former senator and regional leader in Guam; Willy Kostka, executive director of Micronesia Conservation Trust (MCT); and Juney Ward, shark and ray conservation officer of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Willy Kostka, executive director of MCT, helped establish the regional shark sanctuary and one in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Courtesy Willy Kostka
Former Sen. Carlotta Leon Guerrero from Guam helped establish the Micronesia regional shark sanctuary in 2015.
Courtesy Carlotta Leon Guerrero
Juney Ward, shark and ray conservation officer of SPREP, supports the Pacific region’s conservation efforts for these species.
Courtesy SPREP

Q. Why was a regional shark sanctuary needed? 

Kostka: Healthy oceans are vital to small island nations in the Pacific, especially Micronesia, where whole economies and populations can depend on fisheries for their survival. Establishing the Micronesia Regional Shark Sanctuary was a vital step toward protecting marine and coastal biodiversity, given sharks’ central role both culturally and in terms of conservation.

Some islanders depend on sharks for sustenance and utilize the remaining parts for making traditional tools, jewelries and handicrafts, while others consider sharks as ancestral deities and totems. Sharks are migratory, and we saw the need for cooperation between jurisdictions to ensure protection and consistent enforcement. 

Leon Guerrero: Tuna fisheries are a major source of income for nearly all the islands, but our people didn’t know that sharks and other animals were being caught and killed as bycatch. Considering the importance of sharks to our ocean ecosystems and also to many of our cultures, the shark sanctuary model made sense to our leaders. Implemented well, a shark sanctuary allows for the continued fishing of tuna but reduces the number of sharks killed.

Q. Why has the regional sanctuary been a success?

Kostka: Pacific small island nations unite as a region and coordinate through multinational summits and organizations such as the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures, the Micronesia Islands Forum, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, and the Micronesia Traditional Leaders Council.

Because of these organizations’ support, half of the world’s shark sanctuaries are in the Pacific. The ocean connects these nations, so working together to protect their main natural resource sets an important precedent.

Leon Guerrero: Guiding members of the community on how to express their support for the creation of their own shark sanctuary was key. In Guam, students appeared before the legislature. In Pohnpei, women hosted a sharks-themed skirt-sewing contest, and the winning entry was framed and placed in the airport. In Kiribati, students ages 15-25 created a song, dance, and poetry road show to help villages learn and understand. In addition, in-depth discussions at traditional meetings with village elders led to the crafting of Kiribati’s resolution supporting shark protections.

SPREP, Pew, and locals celebrate the designation of Kiribati’s shark sanctuary.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Q. What were the biggest obstacles to the regional sanctuary?

Kostka: Each jurisdiction in Micronesia had to pass its own laws to establish jurisdictional sanctuaries. Unlike the other Micronesia Challenge jurisdictions, the FSM consists of four states with over 600 islands spread over more than 1 million square miles. Each of the States, and the national government, had to pass its own legislation.

Leon Guerrero:  The two most difficult obstacles we faced were the commercial fishing industry and perceived cultural traditions around consumption. Historically, commercial fishers had a free pass to kill as many sharks as they wanted until we started pushing for protections. Even now, the industry continues to lobby for a return to the days when they killed hundreds of thousands of sharks with no oversight.

Q. What has this monumental accomplishment inspired? 

Ward: I have seen a growing momentum and commitment from Pacific leaders to protect sharks and rays and their critical habitats. Also, the governments of Fiji and Samoa led successful proposals to list mobula rays on Appendices I and II and blue sharks on Appendix II of CMS in 2014 and 2017, respectively. Fiji also led a proposal for mobula rays to be listed on Appendix II of CITES. A number of Pacific countries made voluntary commitments to protect sharks, rays, and other iconic marine species during the U.N. Ocean Conference in 2017. Most recently, Fiji, Palau, and Samoa supported the successful CITES listing of 18 species of sharks and rays in August.

Kostka: A year after the FSM Congress passed the shark law, Micronesia Conservation Trust coordinated a regional symposium on the Micronesia Shark Sanctuary, which included high-level representatives from Palau, Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the FSM. As a result of the symposium, the FSM and its States identified inconsistencies in the state and national shark laws and took steps to align those laws.

Additionally, Palau became one of the world’s most ambitious ocean conservation champions to date by declaring 80 percent its waters a marine sanctuary in 2015, and the FSM enacted a law protecting 10 percent of its waters from commercial fishing in 2017. The first Marine Terrestrial Conservation Enforcement Academy was hosted on Guam, with participation by officials from the FSM states and Palau. As a result, the FSM and Palau are now fining owners of ships that violate those national laws.

Leon Guerrero: I’ve seen regional awareness shifting around the dynamics of the commercial fishing industry and conservation. For so long, distant water fishing nations had free reign to dictate to our small island nations the terms and conditions for resource exploitation. The creation of shark sanctuaries helped regional leadership to see that they could have influence and control in an arena where they are so often not even invited to sit at the table. I also think our leaders are realizing that our ability to protect the ocean is always three steps behind our technological capacity to harm the ocean, and this is overwhelming to say the least.  We need to do more, and we need to do it better, and we need to do it faster. 

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