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Fisheries forum discusses shark conservation

ON March 17, the 159th meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council Fisheries Forum took place at the Fiesta Resort & Spa.

Rep. Richard Seman addresses the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council meeting at Fiesta Resort & Spa. Contributed photoRep. Richard Seman addresses the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council meeting at Fiesta Resort & Spa. Contributed photo
Approximately 50 people attended including fisherman, government agency personnel, and students. The evening started with a presentation from Dr. Simon Nicol who informed participants of the oceanic sharks found in the Pacific. Of the ones listed; blue shark, oceanic white tips, silky sharks, mako sharks, and thresher sharks, only the blue shark population was trending toward sustainability.

Paul Dalzell was clear to point out that the Marianas has never had a real fisheries resulting in our healthy shark populations and high levels of catch depredation (when sharks steal a fisherman’s catch). Which opened up the point that the market for shark products, like shark fins, were unlikely to decline and CNMI’s location could provide support for demand of these products to China and Taiwan. Should the CNMI take advantage of that? Historically sharks were used for food, family totems, and at burial sites. Now sharks are known for their parts. Liver oil and cartilage are found in dietary supplements (which lack scientific evidence that they are useful), skin is used for leather, and fins are used for a tasteless soup in traditional Asian ceremonies and events.

Dalzell closed his presentation with CNMI fishery recommendations, “coastal fishing has little potential and would easily lead to depleted shark stocks where as pelagic fishing could yield large resources and could be fished sustainably.

These recommendations come despite the fact that CNMI does not have a survey of shark resources, shark species composition, catch rates, size frequency, or any baseline information, also pointed out by Dalzell. All the information that has been collected so far is anecdotal.

The final discussions were on the topic of fining. A practice that regularly makes the news with bold numbers such as 100 million sharks are killed every year, 73 million of those sharks being used for shark fin soup (where only fins are used and no other shark meat). In 2010 Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which requires fisherman to land sharks with their fins still naturally attached, as well as using trade sanctions with countries that do not have shark protection laws.  

The CNMI as well as other Micronesian islands like Guam, Palau, and the Marshall Islands all agreed that sharks need protection. They grow slowly, reach sexual maturity later in life, and have few offspring. CNMI Public Law 17-27 “prohibits anyone from possessing, selling, offering for sale, trading, or distributing shark fins in the CNMI.” The CNMI law is stricter than federal law when it comes to protecting the sharks in their waters.

At the end of the forum a Q&A session initiated with a single question being asked by Joe Kaipat, a Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality employee, “can the CNMI have a more stringent law than the federal government?” His response came from Mike Tusatto replying yes, the CNMI can have hasher laws than the federal government unless they are unconstitutional (which CNMI P.L. 17-27 is not). He continued to point out that according to federal law a shark that is landed with fins is not a shark and fins it is only a shark. Even after those fins are harvested the fins are still considered a shark. His response was focused on pointing that if the CNMI would allow the landing of sharks (altering current laws) they could pursue the option of selling shark fins and products. Despite insufficient data beyond anecdotal, speakers were for decreasing CNMI’s strict shark protection laws for the opportunity to open up shark fisheries for the benefit of trade sanctions and shark product sales to Asian markets. Even though Rep. Richard Seman was clear to point out that CNMI fisherman do not fish for sharks.

Arnold Palacios, secretary of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, ended the forum with an announcement that the governor of the CNMI, Eloy S. Inos, had asked him to arrange a meeting the next day, March 18, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, legal counsel and Tusatto to discuss decreasing CNMI law to match the federal government law.

The CNMI is in great company with its shark conservation laws. The CNMI is also part of the Micronesia Challenge and has promised to conserve 30 percent of coastal waters.

Dr. Nicol pointed out that shark species like Oceanic White Tips and Silky Sharks are being overfished. CNMI sharks need continued protection, and it may be the only thing that keeps its part of the ocean in good health.