Small but mighty – Pacific Islands lead the way on shark conservation

Do you remember that famous saying: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Apparently it was the Dalai Lama who said it. In the case of shark conservation, which has accelerated dramatically over the past decade or so, think of the small Pacific island nations as being that mosquito.

They’re not used to having their voice heard in big national meetings – or even being at the table. But because they are so small, and their economies are so reliant on fish and tourism, they could see clearly early on how fishing practices endangered sharks. 

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

And because sharks are one of the ocean’s keystone species – a bit like a lion, tiger, or bear on land – shrinking numbers of sharks endangered the rest of the ocean.

It was the work of these small nations that paved the path to successful shark conservation, says the Pew Charitable Trusts, a global conservation organization.

Pacific Island nations have created eight shark sanctuaries throughout the region—in the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau, and Samoa—that cover more than 6.6 million square miles of ocean. 

In 2011, they created the first regional shark sanctuary, which covers 2 million square miles – about two-thirds of the size of the continental USA – and which represented a regional consensus on shark conservation standards and strategy. 

Shark conservation was finally gaining traction, said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group, which helped draft the agreement. He noted that sanctuaries had been created in Honduras, Chile and the Bahamas that same year.

In 2010, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa joined Palau’s President, Johnson Toribiong, at the United Nations to challenge other coastal nations to create more shark sanctuaries, prohibit shark fishing, and end shark finning and global overfishing of sharks. Honduras had just put a moratorium on shark fishing, following up on Palau’s 2009 decision to declare all of its waters a shark sanctuary – a world first.

The small Pacific nations also have supported or led on proposals to list sharks and rays in key international wildlife agreements –  the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).

“For so long, distant water fishing nations had free rein to dictate to our small island nations the terms and conditions for resource exploitation,” says former Guam Senator Carlotta Leon Guerrero, who helped create the Micronesia regional shark sanctuary in 2015. “The creation of shark sanctuaries helped regional leadership to see that they could have influence and control in an arena where they are so often not even invited to sit at the table.”

For Palau, which is located in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles east of the Philippines, it was clear that sharks were worth much more alive than dead. An individual reef shark has an estimated lifetime value of U.S.$1.9 million for tourism but only US $108 if caught by a fisherman. Palau’s pristine marine environment is a favourite dive destination; shark diving earns $1.2 million for local communities and $1.5 million a year in taxes for government. In 2009, Palau protected its entire exclusive economic zone – about the size of France.

Much the same realization caused the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, to become the next nation to create a shark sanctuary – about the size of the US state of Maine. Tourism is the largest part of its economy, but fishing is not far behind. An Australian study found that a gray reef shark in the Maldives was worth US $3,300 a year in tourism vs. US$32 dollars when sold by a fisherman.

The Maldives, which is home to more than 30 shark species, banned hunting from 1 March 2010, along with the trade and export of sharks and shark products. It also pledged to assist shark fishermen to find alternative livelihoods. In mid-2009, it had created three new marine protected areas, including important feeding grounds for manta rays and whale sharks

As noted, a lot happened in 2011. Honduras created a permanent shark sanctuary encompassing all 92,665 square miles of the country’s Pacific and Caribbean waters.The Bahamas, noting that a Caribbean reef shark was worth $250,000 to tourism but only $50 if killed and sold, declared its entire exclusive economic zone (stretching 200 nautical miles from its coast) a shark sanctuary and prohibited the sale, trade and possession of sharks or shark parts. Chile approved a law forbidding shark finning.

Then in December 2012, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands created adjacent shark sanctuaries covering an area nearly equal in size to Australia, which effectively doubled worldwide areas off-limits to shark fishing. French Polynesia’s was the world’s largest, at 1.5 million square miles; the Cook Islands made its entire Mexico-sized exclusive economic zone a sanctuary. Possession, sale, or trade of shark products was prohibited within sanctuary boundaries. A huge external demand for shark products had developed in the 1990s. “Tons of fins were exported to Asia and the sights of finless cadavers of sharks multiplied,” a government advisor said.

In 2012, the Seychelles began exploring how it, too, could protect its sharks, and began negotiating a debt swap deal that took four years to complete. (Jacques Cousteau filmed The Silent World there in the 1970s, but since then, the coral banks he’d filmed had bleached and fish catches were shrinking. Seychelles, which feared for both its tourism and fishing industries, has ended up protecting an area of ocean larger than Germany. In 2015, Chile created the largest marine reserve in the Americas by protecting an area off its coast that was roughly the size of Italy.

Last December, the West African country of Ivory Coast created a protected marine area of more than 1,000 square miles off its coast. The area, which is home to coral reefs and tropical fish and an important nesting and foraging ground for turtles, includes a protected zone that is closed to all activities, and an eco-development zone that will support sustainable fishing and ecotourism. Ivory Coast has promised to create four more marine protected areas in its Atlantic waters.

The reason there is such concern to protect sharks is that their numbers have been declining precipitously since 1970. Shark products are a billion dollar industry, and are a main livelihood for some communities around the world, notes the Marine Stewardship Council. It certifies fisheries as sustainable, which helps deter illegal fishing and shark finning, and it believes that sustainable shark fishing is possible. 

Even if we might think Jaws when we think of sharks, we need them, and so does the ocean. “Despite our often unfavourable opinion, humans are much better off with healthy shark populations than we are without them,” the Council says. “Without them, populations of species lower down the food chain can grow too big, placing increased pressure on the other animals they feed on. Sharks help keep the food chain balanced. A well stabilised ocean food chain in turn provides food for billions of humans and jobs for hundreds of millions.”


How the Pacific Region Paved the Path to Successful Shark Conservation. Pew Trusts, Dec. 16, 2019

Pacific Islands Band Together on a Shark Sanctuary. New York Times, Aug. 4, 2011

Blue bonds, debt for nature swaps. New York Times, Oct. 2020

Sharks receive Indian Ocean sanctuary in the Maldives. National Geographic, Mar. 12, 2010

French Polynesia and Cook Islands create world’s largest shark sanctuary. Oceana, Dec. 19 2012

Samoa Establishes A Sanctuary For Sharks And Rays In Its National Waters. SPREP, Mar. 2, 2018

Ivory Coast opens first protected marine area. Dec. 21, 2020.

Chile Creates Largest Marine Reserve in the Americas. National Geographic, Oct. 6, 2015.

Honduras The First Shark Sanctuary in the Americas. Pew Trusts. Mar. 29, 2018