Projects Abroad at the forefront of shark conservation in Fiji
Over 100 million sharks are killed through overfishing, pollution and habitat loss each year. Marine eco-systems are at risk of becoming imbalanced if the numbers of sharks continue to decline. Lower shark numbers can lead to an increase in the number of mid-level predator fish, which can decimate the population of herbivore species. This also harms coral reefs as algae can then grow unchecked. Hardest hit by this imbalance are local communities who depend heavily on the oceans for their livelihood and food.
To tackle these issues, Projects Abroad launched a shark conservation project in 2014 in an effort to learn more about these predators, their life cycle and how they can be helped through the data collected. The Projects Abroad Fiji Shark Conservation Project is now in its third successful year of operation. Based in Pacific Harbour, Viti Levu, Fiji, the Shark Conservation Project accepts volunteers from around the world who work closely with scientists and researchers to collect data during their dives, workshops and community work in the local area.
The dedicated team focuses on generating high-quality scientific data to raise awareness around the importance of shark conservation, mangrove reforestation and general education in local communities regarding the shark’s role in marine eco-systems. To date, volunteers have completed over 1000 survey dives within Beqa Lagoon and collected data on 33 species of predatory fish, ten species of sharks, six species of ray and two species of turtles.
“We have tagged approximately 300 sharks comprising of nine different species, two green turtles and one guitarfish as part of our tagging project,” said project manager Kristian Miles. “We have also deployed over 250 Baited Remote Underwater Videos (BRUVS). These monitor predatory fish, shark, ray and turtle species diversity and abundance in areas of interest around Beqa Lagoon. Several species of shark and ray have been observed on BRUV videos.”
Volunteers are key to gathering data about the shark population and local marine life, and volunteer assistance is required year-round to ensure the sustainability of the project. Stephanie Bruckl, who volunteered on the project in 2014, outlines the typical tasks volunteers help with on their dives: “For diving we had slates where we recorded data on any sharks and indicator species we saw. I saw some incredible stuff, white tips, black tips, grey reef, bull sharks, leopard sharks, rays, jellyfish, turtles and some sensational corals too. Once we got back on the boat we went over our data and filled out the paperwork. We also collect data for e-shark and the Great Fiji Shark Count.”
Edward Sibley, a volunteer currently on the project, stresses the importance of marine life conservation. “Underwater, as on land, there are intricate interspecific relationships which we still don’t fully understand. What we do know, however, is that as soon as one of the components in these relationships is eliminated, the whole structure collapses,” he said. “This is felt not just by marine life, but by humans too. It is crucial to rediscover the human-oceanic equilibrium that has dissipated in recent years and marine conservation is the way to achieve that.”
Local communities are often unaware of the importance of sharks, and shark conservation efforts are limited in Fiji. Volunteers and staff in the Fiji placement aim to change this by educating people during community outreaches and education campaigns. “We have worked closely with various schools and children to give them a greater understanding of the different species of sharks, rays and turtles in the area and their importance,” said Kristian. “Other conservation issues are also covered such as how trash negatively impacts the marine environment and how important mangroves are at providing protection, supporting fish stocks and mitigating climate change.”
The Shark Conservation Project also focuses its efforts on mangrove reforestation in the region. Mangrove forests are one of the most important marine eco-systems, as they are a nursery and habitat for many species of fish, sharks, crustaceans, mammals and birds.
In the last three years, approximately 80 000 mangrove seedlings have been planted in the surrounding area by volunteers and staff. To house the seedlings, Projects Abroad collected 50 000 plastic bottles disposed of by the local community that now serve as pots in the mangrove nurseries. “We have created the largest mangrove nursery in the South Pacific Region,” said Kristian.
Regular community outreaches are also organised for the volunteers and they regularly fill large black bags with trash that is harmful to marine and wildlife. “Once a month we try to do something completely unrelated to shark conservation for a local school, village or community. Previous projects have included painting community halls and schools, building playgrounds, foot bridges in villages, cement paths and the landscaping a children’s home garden,” explains Kristian.
In just three short years the Projects Abroad Shark Conservation Project in Fiji has made a significant contribution to understanding and monitoring local shark populations, and the impact these have on marine eco-systems and local communities. But there is still much to be done, and volunteers are needed to keep supporting what Ian Campbell, the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Shark Programme Manager, has called “possibly the most important shark project in the world.”