By Emily Lu
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Just a few short months ago, our class was learning how to use SCUBA equipment for the first time in the swimming pool on campus. It would have been impossible to think that we would soon be diving at one of the premier dive destinations for experienced divers around the world. Yet each of us has become a scientific diver, and has successfully tackled the famous Blue Corner in Palau.
Nutrients flow to this area, attracting fish, larger fish, and finally sharks, providing divers with one of the most spectacular experiences imaginable. Countless grey reef and white tip sharks surrounded us as we remained suspended in the water, watching in awe as they swam right by us. After swimming within arm’s reach of these majestic creatures, it is easy to see why Palauans are so adamant about preserving their shark populations.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that most species of sharks have very little in common with the allegedly bloodthirsty great white sharks that grab headlines. Sharks are crucial to maintaining a healthy balance in marine life. As top predators of the food chain, their loss could cause irreparable changes to ocean ecology.
However, the Pew Environment Group estimates that over 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins in shark fin soup, or accidentally as by-catch on lines intended to catch other fish. (Klotz, 2011) Habitat degradation also threatens shark populations. Sharks are particularly threatened by extinction because they mature very slowly and produce few young. (Field et al. 2009)
In addition to their important role in the environment, sharks also contribute to the economic success of many coastal nations, including Palau’s. Palau’s main industry is tourism, attracting travelers worldwide with its pristine, tropical, marine environment. Of the 80,000 tourists who visit Palau every year, approximately 51% are divers who are drawn to Palau by the opportunity to observe the majestic sharks in their natural habitat in amazing locations such as Blue Corner.
In fact, shark divering accounts for approximately 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. (Vianna et al., 2010) Palau is considered a leader in world shark conservation, and President Toribiong has demonstrated his appreciation for protecting sharks in their territorial waters through his political actions. In September of 2009, Palau established the world’s first shark sanctuary, banning commercial fishing of sharks within the 230,000 square miles of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone. (SRI 2011)
About 130 threatened species of sharks that frequent the waters near Palau, including hammerheads, oceanic white tips, and leopard sharks (Black, 2009) have already benefitted from this initiative. But given the vast range that sharks can cover, as well as their presence all over the ocean, an even greater conservation area would have a more significant impact on shark conservation efforts.
This is why in 2011 leaders at the 15th Micronesian Chief Executive Summit passed a declaration to create the Micronesian Regional Shark Sanctuary, which will become the world’s largest shark sanctuary in December 2012. This sanctuary will span an area of approximately 2 million square miles, consisting of the territorial waters of all Micronesian islands involved in the agreement, including the Federated States of Micronesia, Territory of Guam, Republic of Palau and Northern Mariana and Marshall Islands. This new law would outlaw entirely the fishing, possession, sale and trade of sharks and their fins within the sanctuary.
However, it will be a challenge to enforce these shark conservation policies. For an area roughly the size of 2/3 of the United States, it will be extremely difficult to monitor the waters for illegal activity. For example, Palau’s shark sanctuary alone is currently monitored by only one boat to patrol an area equivalent to the size of France. (Than, 2009) Defining an area as a shark sanctuary alone is not enough to protect these creatures; proper supervision of the waters and enforcement of the rules is crucial to its success.
Declaring a shark sanctuary is only the beginning of progress: in order to ensure the protection of sharks, countries must not only enforce protection laws but also focus on recruiting the cooperation of local communities. Fishermen who currently benefit from the shark finning industry must be offered an alternative way to make a living, and Asian cultures that consider shark fin soup a delicacy must shift away from this mindset
According to researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a single reef shark can be worth nearly $2 million in tourism revenue over its lifetime (SRI 2011). In contrast, a shark killed for food use is estimated to be worth only $108. Therefore, Micronesian nations participating in this pact can expect to generate substantially more revenue through ecotourism.
The Micronesian Regional Shark Sanctuary has the potential to be a significant breakthrough for shark conservation in the world. In addition to the direct benefits it provides to sharks in the sanctuary, it will hopefully draw worldwide attention to the incredible value of live sharks to both the ecosystems and economies of coastal nations. As Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group, said, “[Micronesia’s] leadership should serve as a model for other coastal nations to safeguard these important keystone species which are rapidly disappearing form the world’s oceans.” (Jaynes, 2012)
(2011). 15th MCES Joint Communique. 15th Micronesian Chief Executives’ Summit.
Black, Richard (2009, September 25). Palau Pioneers “shark sanctuary.” BBC News.
Field I, Meekan M, Buckworth R, Bradshaw C (2009). Susceptibility of sharks, rays and chimaeras to global extinction. Advances in Marine Biology 56: 275-363.
Foster, Joanna M. (2011, Aug 4). Pacific Islands Band Together on a Shark Sanctuary. The New York Times.
Harris, Richard (2011). Fighting Decline, Micronesia Creates Shark Sanctuary. NPR.
Hart, Therese (2011). Regional Micronesian shark sanctuary seen by 2012. Marianas Variety (Guam Edition).
Jaynes, Bill (2012). Resolution Calls for Shark Sanctuary in Federated States of Micronesia. Shark Defenders.
Klotz, Daniel (2011). “Million-Dollar Reef Sharks” an Economic Driver for Palau”. Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Pew Environment Group.
Shark Research Institute (2011). Two Million Dollar Sharks. Shark Research Institute Newsletter. 2:20.
Than, Ker (2009). France-Size Shark Sanctuary Created – A first. National Geographic News.
Vianna GMS, Meekan MG, Pannell D, Marsh S, Meeuwig J (2010). Wanted Dead or Alive? The relative value of reef sharks as a fishery and an ecotourism asset in Palau. Australian Institute of Marine Science and University of Western Australia, Perth.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg,, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.