APIA - More than 80 species of sharks that frequent the Pacific oceans will now be protected under a new regional plan of action.

Their protection means cultural practices based around the shark will also be preserved.

Sharks are not just significant in the marine environment, they are also very much ingrained in Pacific-region cultural myths, legends and current oratory traditions, say experts.

"The shark is very much a part of the Samoan story, as our oratory metaphors derive from the natural environment, many of these are based around marine species that include the shark," said Kilisi Solomona, a cultural expert from the island of Savaii.

One such metaphor is, 'E pei pai o le la i le tua o le tanifa ao liliu le matagofie o lau fetalaiga' which Solomona says translates: "It is like the touch of the sun on the back of a shark, the beauty of your words."

Solomona says that it is not just metaphors that relay the value of the shark and the whale but in some of the origins of traditional practices such as tattooing fishing.

"No doubt without the shark or whales these important parts of our culture will lose great value as well. It is important that my own children see and know of sharks when they grow up so that they too can put value on the origin on Samoan cultural practices," Solomona said.

The protection of sharks was enacted today by the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) during the launch of the Pacific Islands Regional Plan of Action on Sharks.

According to FFA at least 80 species of sharks and rays occur within the Pacific Islands region. Around half of these species are considered to be highly migratory, therefore fishing impacts upon them must be internationally managed. Due to their low productivity and long life span, these species are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation.

SPREP Marine Species Officer Lui Bell says many shark species are endangered.

"A lot of them are migratory sharks and are now listed in several Conventions as endangered."

Bell added: "The concern over sharks revolves around the increase in direct shark fisheries, both for meat and fin, as well as by-catches in other fisheries. Coupled with the nature of shark themselves (long-lived, slow growing and few offspring), increases in catches and other factors would have an adverse impact on shark populations. Some species of sharks have been listed as endangered, and some migratory species such as whale and basking sharks have been listed as vulnerable."

According to the Species Officer if no action is taken now, more and more shark species will be threatened.

"If we don't work to manage and protect their population now, then we could be seeing a lot more sharks threatened."

The Plan of Action on Sharks requires Commission members to set management arrangements for sharks that address shark finning in the Pacific.

According to FFA the Plan of Action is the first regional plan on sharks in the world and provides guidance to Pacific Islands authorities on, how to assess the impacts of fisheries on sharks, ensure that management arrangements for sharks within their waters meet the requirements.

It also identifies other initiatives, such as improved data collection and research, which might ensure the sustainable management of sharks in national and international waters.

- Environment Weekly