Sunday, April 23, 2017

Environment

South Pacific: Tiny Island of Kosrae Starts World’s Biggest Shark Sanctuary

This small Micronesian state is barely on the map, but the island of Kosrae is realizing its big ambitions when it comes to maritime conservation.

(Image from www.kosraevillage.com)

After recent visits by high-profile figures like Hillary Clinton and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the South Pacific and its small island nations have been enjoying a rare moment in the spotlight. The Cook Islands, which hosted this year’s Pacific Islands Forum, used their newfound media attention to announce the creation of the world’s largest contiguous marine park, covering more than a million square kilometres. At the Forum, where environmental issues were at the fore, other nations said they would follow suit – and now, the small state of Kosrae has made good on that promise.

The name Kosrae may not be familiar to many people, and it’s understandable why – the state, one of the four that compose the Federated States of Micronesia, has a population of only about 7,500, and an area of just over 100 square kilometres. Life on the sleepy island revolves around the blue waters that surround it, with fishing and scuba-diving tourists making up the primary income streams for residents.  Now, the government has made a brave move to protect its ocean ecosystems – by protecting its most fearsome inhabitant.

Despite their popular image as a toothy threat to divers and swimmers, the reality is that it’s sharks that should be frightened of humans, rather than the opposite. The enthusiasm in Asia for shark-fin soup has decimated their numbers: researcher Julie Eilperin, author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, wrote that an astounding 73 million sharks per year are killed to satisfy the gourmet food market in China alone. Many of these sharks are fished from Micronesian waters, giving a genuine urgency to Kosrae’s shark sanctuary.

(Satellite image from Google Earth)

Apex predators like sharks fulfill an important role in ocean ecosystems, and their over-fishing leaves the door open for exploding populations of smaller fish, which in turn can devour scallops, shellfish, and marine flora, leaving essentially a wasteland beneath the waves. While too few sharks results in an overall imbalance in the ocean environment, a very serious problem faced by Micronesia due to shark over-fishing is the direct relationship between low shark populations and the destruction of coral reefs by rampant numbers of prey fish.

Kosrae’s shark sanctuary bill was unanimously voted in by its legislature, and when enacted, it will strictly prohibit any commercial shark fishing within its waters, and also ban the sale, possession or trade of shark products on the island. Other Micronesian states will hopefully be following suit, resulting in a total of 2.9 million square kilometres under protection. It’s a global distinction that these tiny islands can be proud of. “Micronesia is leading the world in shark conservation,” said a director at the Pew Environment Group. “Kosrae is an important piece in the puzzle to protect sharks in the region.”

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