Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Tiny state big on shark protection

Marshall Islands provides one of the largest sanctuaries in the world and it's proving a magnet for divers.

Pew Environment Group shark conservationist Angelo Villagomez throws seized shark fins, worth thousands of dollars, into the sea at Majuro.
Pew Environment Group shark conservationist Angelo Villagomez throws seized shark fins, worth thousands of dollars, into the sea at Majuro.

An hour before the Pacific Islands Forum's opening feast, hundreds of shark fins were hauled out for display.

The fins, a costly and controversial delicacy, made it nowhere near a dinner plate. As leaders from Pacific nations looked on, thousands of dollars worth of fins were thrown into the waters off Majuro, the Marshalls Islands capital.

"They either burn them or throw them out to sea," said shark expert and Pew Environment Group conservationist Angelo Villagomez, who emptied two large sacks of crudely sawn-off fins.

It was a gesture which underscored the tiny island state's ambitious commitment to ban commercial shark fishing across its massive exclusive economic zone. The Marshalls are shark-infested, and proud of it. No sharks can be caught or sold.

On arriving in Majuro, a rectangular-shaped atoll halfway between Hawaii and Australia, visitors are greeted with large billboards of sharks, reminding them that the country has one of the largest shark sanctuaries in the world - nearly nine times the size of New Zealand.

New Zealand provides some surveillance of fishing boats in the region, and the Marshalls are likely to ask for more help with monitoring. Marshall Islands Vice-President Tony de Brum helped to create the sanctuary two years ago.

"We are already seeing remarkable changes in our shoreline because of much more shark activity," he said.

"We get more tourists that want to go play with the sharks than we have tourists running away from sharks."

Few people appeared to be swimming around Majuro, but locals said this was not because of a fear of sharks, but because the atoll had a poor waste-water system.

The number of tourists visiting the myriad atolls and islands is minuscule - it is the fifth-least-visited country in the world. But those who do make the expensive trip - usually from Honolulu - come for the diving.

Mr Villagomez, who is based in Washington, said the Pacific was leading the world on shark protection. All purse seine boats had observers, and any shark bycatch had to be thrown away.

The fins thrown into Majuro harbour on Tuesday were seized from a Taiwanese vessel in February. It was fined $125,000. They were sliced from hammerheads, blue sharks, makos, and an oceanic white-tip - believed to be the most endangered shark in the world.

The rules contrast with New Zealand, where finning of dead sharks is still allowed.

Key sidesteps nuclear compo issue

New Zealand will not use its nuclear-free lobbying power to wade into a debate about compensation for Pacific Islanders who were harmed by nuclear contamination, Prime Minister John Key says.

The Marshall Islands Foreign Affairs Minister, Philip Muller, said at the Pacific Islands Forum that New Zealand's support would be welcomed as islanders sought up to US$2 billion ($2.5 billion) in damages as a result of nuclear testing in the 1950s.

Mr Key, who is in the Marshalls for the forum, responded by saying it was a bilateral matter that New Zealand was not directly involved in, and the host country needed to take it up with the Americans.

United States Interior Secretary Sally Jewel will arrive on the atoll tomorrow for post-forum talks. The Marshalls are a republic in free association with the US.

The US dropped 67 bombs on the islands between 1946 and 1958 - one of them a hydrogen bomb 1000 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb.

A Nuclear Claims Tribunal set up by the two countries in 1988 estimated damages to land and health at around US$2 billion. A fund was established as part of an agreement between the US and the Marshalls, but it could contribute only US$150 million in damages. A further US$50 million has since been paid.

Bikini Atoll, where 23 of the tests took place, has only just become inhabitable, 55 years after the last bomb was dropped.

Shark sanctuaries

* French Polynesia 4.7 million sq km
* Marshall Islands 1.9 million sq km
* Cook Islands1.9 million sq km.

- NZ Herald

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