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Diving Fiji: Shark Reef Marine Reserve

Pacific Harbour, Viti Levu

Shark Reef Marine Reserve is the first protected marine sanctuary for sharks in Fiji. It was established in April 2004 and is located in Beqa Passage, just off the coast of Pacific Harbour on the south coast of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu.

Flop the bull shark, poses for a photo opp. - photo courtesy of Beqa Adventures, Pacific Harbour

This patch reef has a regular population of 8 different shark species. They are: whitetip reef sharks, blacktip reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks, grey reef sharks, sicklefin lemon sharks, silvertip sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks. Hammerhead sharks and manta rays are less common visitors to the reef. This shark population is what attracts divers to Shark Reef to interact with and observe the sharks. There is also a multitude of other fish life here, most notably giant trevally and Napoleon wrasse.

In October 2004 John Earle, a research associate in zoology at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii recorded 267 species in just 7 dives in depths ranging from 10-30 metres. That's not a bad fish count considering large sharks were buzzing around his head at the time and the count was obviously non-exhaustive. The list included 3 species of moray eel, 2 species of lionfish, soldierfish, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, cornetfish, 17 species of grouper, cardinalfish, remoras, jacks, snapper and fusiliers.

Watch our: Shark Reef diving video.

Shark Reef Marine Reserve was created by a local dive operation in conjunction with the local village communities who traditionally own the rights to the reef. They are the Wainiyabia and Galoa villages. The Shark Reef project was set up with 2 main aims: the short term aim is the protection of the reef, and the longer term aim is to develop the area to allow the locals to make an equal or greater income from protecting the reef than they once earned by depleting its resources.

This was achieved by the Wainiyabia and Galoa villages agreeing to stop fishing the area in return for a contribution of approx. US$ 8 from every diver who dives on the reef. The local dive centre collects the levy and deposits it in the villages' community bank accounts on a monthly basis. The local community as a whole should also benefit from the increased number of tourists attracted to the area because of the shark dive. Hotels, restaurants and tour services all benefit, as does Fiji's reputation as a nation that cares for the environment. More involvement of local communities is planned as well as more research projects, but these are reliant on the short term aim of protecting the Shark Reef, so that is currently where most effort is focused.

In order to prevent illegal fishing, 12 wardens were trained by the Fijian government to protect the area. 2 villagers were trained from each of 6 different local villages to oversee the area. The wardens are attached to the Fiji fisheries department and have been granted police powers to stop illegal fishing. The Shark Foundation (www.shark.ch) donated a boat to the wardens to help them to patrol the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. The wardens perform random patrols and are on call 24 hours per day.

Scarface the tiger shark, surrounded by giant trevallies and fusiliers in Viti Levu - photo courtesy of Beqa Adventures

This is an increasingly important role because as Shark Reef becomes more popular with the sharks, it also attracts more and more illegal fishermen from nearby villages. Proof of this is the increase in sharks being seen with fishing hooks in their mouth. Luckily, most of the sharks on the reef are too powerful for traditional Fijian fishing methods. But there is always the fear that a well laid out long-line, if not spotted by the wardens, could decimate the reef's shark population in a matter of a few nights.

Divemasters who take guests on the shark dives at Shark Reef are also from the local communities. Wainiyabia and Galoa village each select 1 candidate per year to be trained on a 1 year internship with the local dive centre. The school leavers are trained from Open Water Diver to Divemaster level.

To protect Shark Reef from boat anchor damage, 8 mooring buoys have been installed in the marine reserve. Mooring buoys have also been installed at other Beqa Lagoon dive sites and these require ongoing maintenance in case of removal by fishermen or rough seas.

Ongoing research studies at Shark Reef Marine Reserve are aimed at learning more about sharks in order to dispel some of the widespread misunderstandings about them, and to help protect the sharks so that whole populations are not wiped out as they have been at other destinations. The Asian delicacy of shark fin soup has created a huge demand for shark fins and as Asian shark populations are depleted, the price of shark fins just increases making it even more attractive to illegal fishermen. Once shark populations are depleted, re-colonisation of habitats is very slow and they may never recover. Sharks mature late and breed slowly. Removing sharks from the top of the reef food chain is also detrimental to the overall health of the reef. Despite the efforts of some conservation organisations who lobby for protection of sharks, commercial fishing is still a major threat to shark populations worldwide.

However, the worldwide growth in recreational diving is leading some communities to appreciate the commercial value of keeping sharks alive and off the dinner table. Divers will travel a long way and spend a lot of money to see sharks in their natural habitat, and these divers are a major contributor to the economies of the countries that they visit. Studies in places such as the Galapagos Islands, Cocos Islands, South Africa, French Polynesia, Mexico and the Bahamas have estimated that a live shark could be worth up to US$ 10,000 per year to the local economy. It is easy to see that this is preferable to the once-off profit of US$ 500 that the fins of 1 dead shark would be worth.

Tiger shark in Fiji - photo courtesy of Doug Perrine www.Seapics.com

Thousands of divers have already visited the Fiji Shark Reef Marine Reserve, pumping vast sums of money into the local economy. These divers probably wouldn't visit and dive at Beqa Lagoon at all, without the Shark Reef dive. This is because a combination on El Niño in 1997 and the tsunami in 2001 significantly damaged the coral in the area (although reefs are recovering fast). No divers have ever been injured at the Shark Reef despite thousands of dives with the sharks being fed by experienced guides.

The bull shark tagging programme is one of the ongoing research projects in Shark Reef Marine Reserve, which looks at the large scale and small scale movements of bull sharks. Bull sharks are common on Shark Reef between January and October, but are much less common in November and December when they leave the reef to mate and give birth. Tagging can give researchers a greater insight into where the sharks actually go during these 2 months. So far 11 bull sharks have been tagged with satellite tags which show that the bull sharks cover large distances and spend a lot of time in pelagic environments.

However their day to day movements are less well known. To help understand their movements better, acoustic measuring devices have been set up around Shark Reef, and it is hoped to ring the entire Beqa Lagoon with these devices in the future. The bull sharks are then fitted with individual identification transmitters that send a signal whenever the shark swims near to one of the location tracking receivers. This information takes time to collect, but once enough information has been collected researchers will have a better understanding of where the sharks spend their time throughout the day and at what times of day they visit particular areas.

We wish Shark Reef Marine Reserve and all those involved in this important landmark project all the success in the future, to continue to provide a protected habitat and future for these wonderful creatures.


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