Sharks and spear fishing in Samoa

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Dear Editor,

When I landed on Samoan shores years ago and soon noticed young fishermen coming out from ocean nocturnal fishing, with strings of dead and agonizing fish hanging from their belts, I thought (quite disappointed): “Oh well, this can only mean that there are no decently sized sharks in Samoa.” 

In fact it is renown that sharks have a very good olfactory (and electric) perception enabling them to detect and locate a bleeding fish from miles away - and oceanic people like Samoans must know this all too well. Clearly, swimming at night outside the reef, open ocean, with bleeding fish hanging from the belt turns the fisherman literally into a shark bait.

For almost six years I have informally surveyed lagoons and the back of reefs along the Samoan coast in my spare time, using my paddling board, to come up to the same sad early conclusion of that night: Samoa is not a place for sharks. Never encountered randomly a non-reef (medium- or large sized) shark during my excursions. Only reef sharks are sometimes seen while snorkelling – but they flee instantly terrorized by the sight of a human – a quite eloquent reality.

A confirmation came also from a recent shark survey, run by an Australian research institute in cooperation with MNRE and SPREP, along the eastern and south-eastern coast of Samoa, that managed to detect only reef sharks.

What could be the reasons for the apparent scarcity of non-reef (medium and large) sharks in Samoa? Where for instance nearby Fiji and French Polynesia are good places to see sharks. First of all, most of Samoan reefs are overfished, as it was stated by the Ministry of Fishery itself as early as the 1990s: this means no much food availability for top predators like sharks. 

On top of this, during the past 10-15 years an unnoticed, low profile and uncontrolled fishing of shark for fins may have occurred in the waters surrounding Samoa (where it is known that Chinese fishing vessels roam unrestrictedly). Exactly like everywhere else around the planet. It is estimated that more than 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins and that the world shark population may have crashed of more than 90% during the past 2 decades. So Samoa is probably no exception.

Yes, Samoa does not seem exactly a paradise for sharks – even though discussions about a Sharks and Turtles Sanctuary have been going on for several years (following the example of American Samoa).

Sometimes you hear of the odd sighting of a medium or large shark but this is quite unusual; while attacks to swimmers, surfers or fishermen (despite their mentioned dangerous practices of fishing) are pretty unheard of - but nonetheless some past records exist.

Then there it came last week the news on the Samoan Observer: a shark attack to a fisherman from the village of Nofoali’I, north-western coast of Upolu. The news, as so often happen in relation with sharks, was very melodramatic and sensationalistic, managing easily to raise the alert among local communities about an imminent shark danger. This first news was followed by another one of similar quality and contents about a week later.

On digging and investigating a bit the news I realized that the accident had not happened during the day, like reported, but instead it took place during the night. And – sure enough - the fisherman was using the mentioned method of keeping the captured fish tied around his hips. No coincidence that the shark – certainly not a reef shark based on the size of the bites, possibly a Bull Shark - bit him in that specific part of his body showing that it clearly went for the fish – and not for the person.

Sharks suffer of a problem of image just because news about them are always reinstating the myth that they are formidable killing machines and very dangerous animals for people – still following the leit motif of the (infamous) Hollywood movie “Jaws” that have terrorized generations of swimmers and sea goers.

The reality is that the more these creatures are studied the more this myth becomes inconsistent and appears as fantasy. What is surely true is that sharks are fundamental players in the ocean ecosystems: an healthy ecosystem needs sharks at the top of the food chain.

When a reef ecosystem loses its sharks, it suffers in all sorts of ways that we are only just beginning to understand. It is also pretty clear that they do not normally attack people, their target food is fish and other marine animals.

The good news is that many Samoan fishermen have halted the use of the mentioned dangerous method of fishing and instead now place the captured fish on floating devices attached to them through  a rope, which means by stringing the fish way behind them- or simply throw the caught fish directly inside the canoe.

Unfortunately there are many more who are still using the unsafe system, like the recent accident showed. I believe they know that are some very low risk of attack (due to shark scarcity in Samoa) – and they are keen to run the risk. In fact, in that same village the mentioned accident seems to be the first one of the kind remembered by elderly people, i.e. a unique event during the course of at least a couple of generations.

Far from blaming the shark and terrorizing the people  we should try to do our best to raise the awareness among the fishing communities on the safest way to spear fish. 

Sharks are just our allies in keeping the ocean reefs healthy and therefore fully able to support the communities’ livelihoods.

 

Gianluca Serra

Marine biologist

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