Taiwanese fishing boats a threat to killer sharks

Last updated 05:00 13/01/2013
Oceanic white tip shark

UNDER THREAT: Under threat: According to the Forum Fisheries Agency, oceanic white tip shark numbers are being driven ‘to the point of irreversible harm’ by fishing in the waters between New Zealand and Tonga.

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Fishing paid in shark fins are causing a decline in two threatened species of shark in the waters near New Zealand's maritime boundary with Tonga.

The Tongan Government recently signed a deal with Ngatai Marine Enterprises Ltd to bring in 22 Taiwanese boats crewed by Indonesians. The boats use the same semi-slave labour system made infamous in New Zealand waters. Poorly paid, the crews suffer human rights abuses and appalling conditions on old vessels.

The 17-nation Forum Fisheries Agency, which controls regional access, said in a report to the Tongan Government that the Indonesian crews have an incentive to kill sharks.

"Industry observations state that crews are paid a proportion of their remuneration through shark fins, thus creating an incentive to fin," the FFA said.

Ngatai Marine Enterprises says it is only accidentally catching sharks but data obtained by the Sunday Star-Times shows at least two major species are being driven "to the point of irreversible harm" with oceanic white tip and silky sharks being taken in large numbers.

Although oceanics have killed more humans than any other species, they're favoured in the shark fin market because of their fleshy fins. The FFA report tells of one catch by a Taiwanese boat in Tonga that netted 739 sharks - most of them oceanics.

The FFA said foreign vessels had shifted to targeting sharks and catches have exceeded national limits. Around 73 per cent of the sharks taken are oceanic white tip and silky sharks. Rapid declines in numbers are being reported.

Fishing Industry Association of Tonga head Tricia Emberson says local fishermen are legally limited to only 3 per cent by-catch but they watch the Taiwanese landing a high percentage of shark in their catch.

"We believe they are targeting shark, and we are not allowed," she said. "I have been fishing for 23 years; I know the gear they are using - [it] does not minimise shark catch."

New Zealander Dr John Hampton, who manages the Oceanic Fisheries Programme at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, said the plight of white tip and silky sharks was assessed last year as "quite dire" with tuna fishing blamed.

Boats target tuna but they occasionally get sharks and rather than throw them back, they bring them in to eat.

Mosese Fakatou, the co-owner of Ngatai Marine Enterprises, defended the shark catch.

"In our country [Tonga], we have very few natural resources, no factories to employ our people, and a very large number of people unemployed living below the poverty line," he said. "What would you rather have? Would you rather have your endangered species of shark, and have people starve to death? Or would you sacrifice some of your endangered species of shark to save some of these poor species of the human race?"

Under the licence deal with the Tongan Government, Taiwanese boats can take unlimited shark, and have duty free fuel; the two local boats are limited in shark take and pay steep fuel prices. The Taiwanese do not have to land their catch in Tonga with most of it simply shipped straight to China.

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Emberson said Tonga's fishing industry was nearly dead last year and the kingdom needed foreign boats to revive it but said there should be stricter controls.

"The whole world is moving to limiting by-catch."

- Sunday Star Times

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