Kattrina Strothmann - Shark Conservation in Fiji
How do I even begin to describe my experience in Fiji? Right now I'm sitting outside by the pool, sipping from a coconut, the sun is shining, lovo is being prepared for supper (which will be followed by some kava), and I'm surrounded by amazing people.
I spent the morning in the ocean. Diving down to 30 metres with visibility of 50 metres is an experience all in itself, toss in nearly 100 sharks and I'm pretty sure my life has peaked. Aside from the fact that I get to do that twice more before I leave Projects Abroad. Is this a typical day? No, but every day here has something unique to offer. From spending time in local villages to exploring this gorgeous country on weekends off, every moment has been amazing.
My decision to volunteer in Fiji
As a waitress from southern Alberta in Canada, the Fijian life is pretty much the opposite of what I'm used to. I stumbled across this project somewhere in the depths of the internet and immediately knew it was something that I wanted to do. At that point, I was toying with the idea of travelling through South East Asia for a couple of months. I knew I needed to get away from the prairies for a bit as travel has always been a passion of mine, but otherwise my focus was all over the map - literally.
When I realised that spending 12 weeks in Fiji with Projects Abroad was about the same price and I would be making an actual difference with my time and money, I was sold. Fast forward a couple months and I was leaving Canada for the first time by myself, headed to a tropical island, to partake in a very scuba diving oriented project when I could barely swim let alone dive. I was terrified, exhilarated, and absolutely in love with life.
Arriving in Fiji
Upon arriving at the Projects Abroad house in Pacific Harbour, I was greeted with a very warm welcome from the numerous staff and other volunteers. It didn’t take more than a couple of days to feel completely comfortable and at home. As a current non-diver, the first thing on my list of experiences was to complete my PADI Open Water certification.
I spent the next week at the Beqa Adventure Divers dive shop completing this and getting a taste of the magnificent scenery around the Pacific Harbour and Beqa Island area. The second day of the course we were already taking a boat out and diving in the ocean! After receiving my certification, I was able to start participating in the variety of activities that Projects Abroad tackles in the pursuit of shark conservation, research, and education.
A typical week on the Conservation Project
The typical week here is filled with a couple of diving days, a couple of tagging days, and a community day. Community days vary from beach clean-ups to educating people on sharks. My first community day I was able to spend time at a nearby village asking locals about their experiences with sharks. After the interviews, we had the opportunity to relax with the locals and enjoy a delicious traditional Fijian meal, kava ceremony, and some dancing. It is beyond rewarding to meet and spend time with the beautiful people that live in Fiji.
Twice a week we take part in survey dives where we take a boat out to different control and reserve areas and observe and record the marine life we see. Though we aren’t always lucky enough to see sharks, the reefs are always breath-taking and the time spent diving is enjoyable. We also drop BRUVs (baited remote underwater videos) and later watch the footage it records of the behaviour of sharks and our indicator species.
Tagging days are some of the best quality time we get with each other as a group. We go out to the Navua River and set up bait lines in order to (hopefully) catch juvenile sharks. Upon catching them, we record their information, tag them, and release them. Most of the time out on the river is spent waiting, and we often return without having caught a shark, but the expeditions always reward us with beautiful scenery and bonding time hanging out with the other volunteers and staff.
Learning about Shark Conservation
I came to Fiji ready for adventure and was looking forward to working in a hands-on capacity towards the conservation efforts of sharks, but I was largely uneducated about the current plight of sharks. Since being here, I have learned the sobering facts about the declining populations of sharks and the resulting state of our oceans.
Sharks are the apex predator of the ocean’s food chain, and as such they feed on the injured and diseased members of a large variety of species. By doing this, they keep populations in check as well as encourage other animals to behave in a way that is healthier for the reefs. An example of this is how the presence of sharks affects the grazing behaviour of turtles in a way that keeps the turtles moving around instead of overeating one specific area. Reef health is very dependent on the existence of sharks.
Most people have a general knowledge of finning, and they think that this is the sole reason for the declines in population. In reality, finning is only one part of the problem, albeit a large one. Sharks are also overfished for other various reasons (ex. supplements, food sources, etc.) and many are caught as unintentional bycatch. Altogether this has led to a greatly decreased number of many populations of sharks. People’s irrational fear of sharks has allowed for this problem to stay out of the public eye for much too long.
Conservation efforts and research regarding sharks is largely lacking, and the problem requires immediate attention and action. Nearly half of shark species are data deficient, meaning that no claims can be made as to the health of their populations as there isn’t enough research data to support them. Only a mere 23% of shark populations are healthy enough to be listed under the status of least concern by the IUCN.
The work done in Fiji by Projects Abroad is praised by the WWF as some of the most important shark conservation work being done and I am honoured to be able to be a part of it. My experience here has been nothing like I would have imagined, and more than I could ever ask for.