Friday, 6 February 2015

Shark fishing research in Papua New Guinea

Balancing environmental sustainability goals against socio-economic needs is an extremely difficult task in a place like Papua New Guinea (PNG). This was my main take-home message from a visit to Milne Bay in PNG in November 2014. The visit was part of my work on the ACIAR-funded project: ‘Sustainable Management of Shark Resources in PNG: Socio-economic and Biological Characteristics’. The project is being run by the PNG National Fisheries Authority, the CSIRO, James Cook University and doMar Research.

Brooker/Utian Island [Source: Google maps]

Shark catches have risen rapidly in recent years due to the high price paid for shark fin which is used to make shark fin soup. A major problem is that sharks are highly susceptible to overfishing because of their low reproductive rate. Additionally, shark meat is not very valuable, so often the fins of the shark are sliced off and the remaining carcass is wastefully dumped. The ACIAR project looks at the status of shark stocks and technical tools to better manage and conserve the shark population, leading to a more sustainable industry. Protecting the environment and conserving natural resources should always be a high priority. Providing communities with opportunities to protect their own wellbeing so that they don’t have to rely on unsustainable practices is also essential.

As I got to see in Milne Bay, shark fin provides a perfect opportunity for villagers in cash poor communities to access much needed income. Shark can be found in local waters, shark fin can be dried (a big benefit when you don’t have electricity and refrigeration), and the small size of shark fin means that they can be easily transported to market (also a benefit when you are a day and a half boat ride to the main fish market and fuel costs up to A$3 per litre).

I spent my first week in Milne Bay on Brooker Island (also known as Utian Island), while also visiting surrounding islands in the Louisiade Archipelago. I was there with Jeff Kinch, an anthropologist and principal of the PNG National Fisheries College who had previously spent time on Brooker Island doing research. Our aim was to talk to shark fishers, shark fin buyers and other community members to collect information about the socio-economic importance of shark fishing to the community.

Inshore net fishing on Brooker Island [Source: Simon Vieira]

On arrival at Brooker Island, I was blown away by how beautiful it was. Lush green hills, palm tree lined beaches, turquoise blue waters, an abundance of marine life and some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

What was immediately evident though, were the difficulties associated with living on the island. There was no running water, electricity or sewerage. Cyclone Ita had hit the island in early 2014, destroying the island’s school, library and coconut supply. Drought has also been an issue in the past, limiting drinking water and food supplies. More recently, an invasive plant species is making farming on the island even more difficult.

Through my discussions, I also learned that shark fin was the most important source of income for the island. The only other income sources included trochus shell, copra (used to produce coconut oil) and fresh fish. Unfortunately, these income sources are far less reliable and profitable. I also learned that beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) had previously been the main source of income for the island. After being heavily overfished across PNG, fishing for sea cucumber was closed by governmental decree in 2009; therefore, preventing shark from becoming the next overfished species is obviously a priority.

Discussion with a family group in their fishing camp on one of the fishing islands and looking at their recently caught shark fin [Source: Simon Vieira]
By heading out to some of the nearby islands where shark fishing takes place, I was able to witness its importance as a family activity. Family groups go out to nearby islands on dinghies or traditional sailing canoes called ‘sailaus’ and camp on the islands for four to five weeks (although one family had set up camp for eleven months!). While the men set and haul lines on a daily basis, the women and children maintain the camp and cook meals.

Our week on Brooker Island soon came to an end. After a farewell feast and some sad farewells, we departed for the three hour boat ride to the local airport. This gave me time to reflect on my time in Milne Bay—an educational and enjoyable trip which provided me greater understanding of the sustainability and socio-economic issues facing PNG fishing communities.

By Simon Vieira, director of doMar Research


  1. Good to see you had fun :3 This leaves me with some difficult thoughts, the village would really struggle without the business, but preserving the sharks is equally as important. And it would take years to come up with a solution to satisfy both parties. Do you have any thoughts on what should be done, Simon?

  2. Hi there,

    The aim is to avoid the situation that occurred for Bech-de-mer. Here, it took a long time to effectively control the catch of Bech-de-mer to sustainable levels. As a result, the fishery reached a point where it was heavily overfished, and so it was closed. This demonstrates that the longer unsustainable fishing is allowed, the more drastic a response that is required to reverse the situation.

    In the case of PNG’s shark fisheries, we want to ensure that PNG’s shark fisheries don’t get to that point where drastic management measures (such as national closures) are needed. Instead, ensuring that ongoing shark fishing is sustainable is the priority so that it can continue to support PNG communities over the long term.

    Identifying opportunities for improving current use of the resource (e.g. to improve the income they get from shark) and opportunities for alternative incomes and livelihoods also needs to be explored. This way, balancing the needs of island communities like Brooker with sustainable outcomes can more easily be achieved. These are all things that will be explored during the project.

    Thanks for the question and happy to take feedback or more questions.


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