|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]|
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]|
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