Marianas Variety

Wednesday, July 23, 2014-11:48:22A.M.

Last updateWed, 23 Jul 2014 12am

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Conservationists praise shark, reef protection in Marshalls

MAJURO — Shark populations and high-quality reefs in the Marshall Islands received high praise last week from two visiting conservationists from the United States.

PEW Environment Group shark conservationist Angelo Villagomez films a shark during a dive in Majuro Atoll last week.  Photo by Shawn Heinrichs“I’ve filmed reefs all over the world,” said filmer Shawn Heinrichs. “I’m really impressed here. This is a gold mine for tourism.”

Heinrichs is visiting with Angelo Villagomez, the senior associate for Global Shark Conservation at the PEW Environment Group in Washington, D.C. They are making two films on the Marshall Islands related to protection of sharks and enforcement of a shark fishing ban adopted by lawmakers last year, and also participating in an enforcement training that is happening this week with trainers here from Guam and Palau assisting Marshall Islands enforcement officials.

They did several dives in Arno and Majuro atolls and came away enthusiastic about the good condition of reefs and shark populations. At all locations, they saw multiple species of shark, which means the reef eco-system is in good condition, Villagomez said.

Additional to the many sharks they encountered, they said the reefs along Majuro’s north shore were in excellent condition by world standards and very accessible to divers. Heinrichs said his experience is that globally, shallow reefs are damaged by pollution and climate change. But the shallow reefs in Majuro are very healthy. In other parts of the world, “from a photography standpoint, you have to dive deep to see healthy reefs,” he said. “Here, you don’t even have to be a diver to see beautiful reefs. All you need is a snorkel.”

He showed a number of his photos of reefs at Eneko that show the island in the background. “If dive photographers see these images close to islands, you will get a line-up of divers wanting to see this,” he said.

After diving the reef around Majuro Atoll, Heinrich was ecstatic. “I’ve dived the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Indonesia and Fiji,” he said. “The structure of the reef here is world class. It’s right here: beautiful water, a variety of corals, fish and sharks.”

The Marshall Islands has a tremendous resource for tourism in its reefs, he said. He described the combination of healthy reefs in Arno and Majuro and mixed species of sharks as world class. “Any diver in the world who sees these reefs would say ‘I want to dive here,’” Heinrichs said.

“I’ve dived in 10 countries and not seen silvertip sharks in 30-to-70 feet of water,” said Villagomez, who is originally from Saipan. At one location, they saw a number of silvertips. “This is an indication of shark protection,” he added.

Heinrichs urged the Marshall Islands to pay attention to what goes into the lagoon because “pollution will damage” the reefs.

“You don’t have to go to an outer island for beautiful corals,” he said. “This is an untapped tourism opportunity.”