The Fijian shark culture and mythology is one which deeply appeals to me. The shark is revered by many Fijians, and legend has it that Dakuwaqa, the ancient shark god, provides protection for the people when at sea.
But the tables are turned, and Dakuwaqa now urgently needs the help of his people: almost 70% of the 75 recorded elasmobranch species inhabiting Fijian waters are considered to be globally threatened with extinction.
It’s reassuring to see whole island communities responding to this urgency and coming together to protect sharks. The Shark Reef Marine Reserve (SRMR) located in the Beqa Channel, off the southern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji, is a striking example of collaboration for conservation.
For any shark diver, the species which are regular visitors to the reef come close to nirvana. To get an idea of how diverse the area is, Of Shark and Man, a recent film by David Diley, not only tells the story of the SRMR but is a stunning showcase of the reef’s most regular visitors, including white-tip reefs, black-tip reefs, grey reefs, tawny nurse, sickle-fin lemons, silver-tip reefs, tigers, and – the species most consider to be the main attraction – bull sharks.
While my ultimate (unrealistic, I know) shark dive would also include a white shark, hammerhead and wobbegong, eight different species in one location is without a doubt an excellent dive site and one worth protecting. Which is exactly what happened in 2004 when the SRMR was established and became the first official marine protected area (MPA) for sharks in Fijian waters.
The MPA was created by the traditional owners of the reef, the villages of Wainiyabia and Galoa alongside Beqa Adventure Divers and the Fiji Department of Fisheries. Both villages relinquished their fishing rights in exchange for an alternative source of income which came from a levy of $20 Fiji dollars per diver.
It is this promise of a reliable source of income which has contributed largely to the MPAs success, because despite MPAs having been widely adopted as leading tools for marine conservation since the mid 1980s, those which fail to align management measures alongside the needs of those most dependent on the areas are usually doomed to failure.
The shark reef MPA proved so successful that in 2007 it was greatly expanded to include 30 miles along the southern coast of Viti Levu, now known as the “shark corridor”. Fishing yields have increased substantially around neighbouring areas, due to a spill-over effect of no-fishing practices within the MPA.
The overall picture is mixed, however. While it is clear that the establishment of the protected areas has been a success in terms of the community and improved fishing yields, the shark dive itself is considered controversial due to the fact that food is used to lure the sharks – usually the bull sharks – in, to increase the likelihood of photographic and viewing opportunities.
It has therefore been important to monitor the reef and its inhabitants, and ongoing studies have been in place since 2003 – prior to the establishment of the reserve – in order to ascertain whether the shark dive was resulting in negative learned behaviours or ecosystem interactions. Research began with fish species counts and fauna inventories being taken to serve as baseline data for future studies that aim at estimating short- and long-term effects of MPA management decisions.
Focusing on the bull shark Carcharhinus leucas, research using acoustic tracking and in-water observation potential long-term influences as a consequence of the provision of food at shark reef have been investigated, using data collected from 2003 to 2011. Results clearly showed that individual bull sharks are not permanent residents at the SRMR, but use the broader coastal area at different times on the southern coast of Viti Levu.
Despite year-round availability of food, the results also showed that bull sharks were not permanently attracted to the SRMR, and individuals do not necessarily come to the feeding site even on days when they are in the area and food is on offer. This, together with observational data that suggests very few bull sharks are present on non-feeding days and that sharks leave the feeding site as soon as feeding stops, indicates that bull sharks avoid the area when humans are present –which means that providing food is essential to elicit human-oriented behaviour.
Their behavioural response to humans is in stark contrast to some coastal teleosts that, after learning to associate food with human presence, lose fear and encircle people in the water even when food is not provided.
The data collected over the eight years show that overall bull sharks are attracted to the feeding site when food is offered, but then disperse away from the feeding site, intermittently leaving the reef for a few days throughout the year and for longer time periods (weeks to months) at the end of the calendar year, most likely to reproduce.
Additional studies are also providing evidence which suggests chumming and food provisioning are unlikely to fundamentally change movement patterns, and seem to only have a minor impact on the behaviour of large predatory sharks.
All in all then, it seems that the shark corridor MPA is an incredibly successful initiative. Not only do the sharks benefit, but the traditional reef owners gain economically, from the levy as well as from the increased fishing yields. In addition to this, villagers are also planting mangroves, being trained as part of the Beqa Adventure Diving crew as well as becoming marine reserve wardens to prevent illegal fishing activities. Shark divers and photographers are also more than happy to experience this level of immersive shark diving; it’s transformative, as David’s film clearly shows. I am confident Dakuwaqa approves.
About the photographers:
Tom Vierus is a German photojournalist and marine biologist. Involved in photography for more than ten years, Tom’s background as a marine biologist is a strong asset in storytelling, and opens up new perspectives.
Lill Haugen is a Norwegian underwater photographer, freelance journalist and communications adviser, based in Oslo. She often uses her images to illustrate the huge environmental challenges our world oceans are facing, hoping they will contribute in changing the way we treat our planet.
References and Further Reading
Brunnschweiler, J.M. and Earle, J.L., 2006. A contribution to marine life conservation efforts in the South Pacific: The Shark Reef Marine Reserve, Fiji. Cybium, 30(4), pp.133-139.
Laroche, R.K., Kock, A.A., Dill, L.M. and Oosthuizen, W.H., 2007. Effects of provisioning ecotourism activity on the behaviour of white sharks Carcharodon carcharias. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 338, pp.199-209.
Brunnschweiler, J.M., 2010. The Shark Reef Marine Reserve: a marine tourism project in Fiji involving local communities. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18(1), pp.29-42.
Brunnschweiler, J.M. and Baensch, H., 2011. Seasonal and long-term changes in relative abundance of bull sharks from a tourist shark feeding site in Fiji. PLoS One, 6(1), p.e16597.
Maljković, A. and Côté, I.M., 2011. Effects of tourism-related provisioning on the trophic signatures and movement patterns of an apex predator, the Caribbean reef shark. Biological Conservation, 144(2), pp.859-865.
Hammerschlag, N., Gallagher, A.J., Wester, J., Luo, J. and Ault, J.S., 2012. Don’t bite the hand that feeds: assessing ecological impacts of provisioning ecotourism on an apex marine predator. Functional Ecology, 26(3), pp.567-576.
Brunnschweiler, J.M. and Barnett, A., 2013. Opportunistic visitors: long-term behavioural response of bull sharks to food provisioning in Fiji. PLoS One, 8(3), p.e58522.
Brunnschweiler, J.M., Abrantes, K.G. and Barnett, A., 2014. Long-term changes in species composition and relative abundances of sharks at a provisioning site. PLoS One, 9(1), p.e86682.