Shark Sanctuary: One Year On

“And this, these are pa’u mango”, our guide said, pointing to a set of drums as he continued his explanation of the band’s instruments. “Mango means shark. Why shark? Because these [pointing to the drum heads] used to be made out of sharkskin. But these ones are goatskin. Why goatskin? Let me tell you…”

Last night, I attended a local island night, full of history and culture. I expected to learn about the islands and their people, but I was pleasantly surprised to also hear several conservation messages stated brightly and forthrightly. And on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary, I nearly popped out of my seat when our guide launched into a brief, informative, and sincere explanation of the threats to sharks and the importance of sharks—living sharks—in the ecosystem.

Our guide was Danny Mataroa, one of the many local supporters of PICI’s efforts to establish a shark and ray sanctuary in the Cook Islands, which was legalized a year ago on 12/12/12. I was thrilled to see him still using his influence (and time with a ‘captive audience’) to talk about sharks.

The most important part to me, though, was the applause from the audience, who whooped and cheered that the Cook Islands was battling against the practice of shark fishing. Several people even commented about it later, with the message still clear in their minds even after all the wonderful food, dancing, and music. One woman spoke to me as we were waiting for our transport, and after expressing her excitement about the policy, she asked what was being done for enforcement of that policy.

That’s the kicker, isn’t it.

Saying that sharks are protected is one thing. Making sure that no one is harvesting or harming the sharks in other ways is another.

A year on, it’s well time to be asking hard questions. Are sharks being caught in Cook Islands waters? Is this sanctuary being duly considered when considering new fishing deals with other companies who want to fish in or near the Cooks? Is this policy having an impact, and the right kind of impact? Are the other threats to sharks, beyond fishing, being addressed?

Fishing is just one thing that humans do in the sea. The practice of shark fishing is a genuine problem, and an eye-catching problem, but fishing is not the only impact that humans have on sharks. What you buy and where you tether a pig affects the land and marine ecosystem too! There’s a need for local information on water quality, prey species abundance, trophic connections and ecological connectivity. Those data are so vital for the successful management of resources.

We are celebrating the Shark Sanctuary today. We are celebrating the support, empathy, and friendship given by the people of the Cook Islands for this project.

The Shark Sanctuary is referenced in some Cook Islands travel websites, and many visitors are pleased that the policy is in place. It is important that this policy, fought for by both Cook Islanders and non-locals, and which benefits Cook Islanders and the global community, is maintained and enforced. It is important for the local and global community to know what is really happening out there in our ocean.

Thank you to Danny, thank you to all the other Cook Islanders and supporters of this conservation goal. We needed you to establish this policy, and we still need you to ask questions and stand firm to make sure that your beliefs are acted upon.

Meitaki, meitaki maata.

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