WWF, the Ministry of Environment and other stakeholders will today launch its Dreketi River and Estuary Shark and Ray Survey report

With today being the World Oceans Day and this year’s theme, The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods, the WWF report provides a snapshot of the species of sharks and rays found within and around Fiji’s deepest river.

According to the WWF report, four species of shark – including the scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini),  the blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus), the great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), and the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) and three species of ray; namely the ocellated eagle ray (Aetobatus ocellatus), pink whipray (Pateobatus fai) and bottlenose wedgefish (Rhynchobatus australiae), were found in and around the Dreketi river and estuary during a twenty day survey conducted in 2020 by Andrew Paris, a Masters student at the University of the South Pacific.

WWF-Pacific / Mala Tagivetauwa.
A bottlenose wedgefish listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN red list is caught by the mangroves at the mouth of the Dreketi River. Photo: WWF-Pacific / Mala Tagivetauwa.

The great hammerhead shark, the scalloped hammerhead shark and the bottlenose wedgefish are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. The bull shark and blacktip shark are listed as Near Threatened with the ocellated eagle ray and the pink whipray listed as Vulnerable.

Paris highlights that the sharks and rays observed during the survey were mostly neonates which illustrated the importance of the Dreketi River as pupping grounds or nurseries. Neonates are sharks with umbilical scars not completely healed or sharks that are at or near birth sizes. This is largely due to the presence of an extensive mangrove system along the estuary and lower reaches of the Dreketi River, an ideal habitat for elasmobranchs (a cartilaginous fish of a group that comprises of sharks, rays, and skates). The Dreketi River is also one of the major rivers yet to be dredged.

He adds that the sightings of a healthy population of sharks are a potential indicator of a healthy and vibrant ecosystem within the Dreketi River and estuary.

According to Paris, the report highlights the need for improving awareness of the presence of critically endangered sharks and rays in Fiji’s waters and the importance of habitats such as the Dreketi River and estuary which are critical components of a shark and ray’s life cycle.

“Certain aspects of a sharks’ life cycle make it very relevant for this kind of research, one is natal philopatry whereby sharks will only come back to the same place to give birth. Just like sea turtles and rays, shark philopatry is an emerging body of research,” Paris added.

WWF-Pacific / Opeti Vateitei. / WWF-Pacific
Researcher Andrew Paris with community rep Tomasi Bula through obtaining a fin clip for DNA analysis to explain how to identify the presence/absence of claspers which determine sex for a blacktip shark. Photo: WWF-Pacific / Opeti Vateitei.

The Permanent Secretary for Environment, Joshua Wycliffe said that the report further strengthens the Fijian Government’s commitment of being an active advocate of the conservation and management of sharks and rays in Fiji.

“At the national level, sharks are protected under Fiji’s Endangered and Protected Species (EPS) Act, which regulates and controls the trade of any species listed under Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as well as indigenous species not listed by CITES.”

“The Environment Management Act 2005 also provides protection of Sharks and other species that may be vulnerable or threatened as well as their habitats. The Offshore Fisheries Management Act 2012 and its regulations further regulate the use of fishing gear used to catch fish (including sharks) as well as restrictions relating to the catch, sell and possession among other things of the shark species listed under Appendix I & II of CITES. It is also important to note that in 2019, a shark fin import and export ban was implemented,” highlighted Wycliffe.

“In 2016, Fiji also made history by becoming the first Pacific Island country to propose global trade restrictions on sharks and rays to ensure their survival and in doing so silky sharks, all three species of thresher sharks and nine species of mobula rays were listed in Appendix II of CITES after a series of landslide votes at the 17th CITES Conference of Parties in Johannesburg, South Africa,” Wycliffe said.

WWF-Pacific / Andrew Paris. / WWF-Pacific
Community rep Tomasi Bula about to release a juvenile bull shark back into the Dreketi river. Photo: WWF-Pacific / Andrew Paris.

The Permanent Secretary further stated that the Ministry of Environment has continuously ensured through its EIA process that during the breeding seasons the breeding habitats of these sharks in Fijian waters are not disturbed and protected. “Activities such as gravel extraction is not allowed during the breeding season.”

According to WWF, the report is timely given that global shark populations are rapidly declining. Insufficient species-specific data continues to thwart global efforts to manage sharks and rays.

“It is important that we have adequate data to assist fisheries and environmental managers, communities, and other stakeholders to effectively protect these species. The findings of this report will provide much needed data to support on-going conservation and management efforts. We recognise that more surveys need to be conducted in other riverine areas in Fiji due to the role of these critical habitats in the life cycle of sharks and rays,” highlighted Vilisoni Tarabe, WWF-Pacific’s Fisheries Policy Officer.

WWF-Pacific / Opeti Vateitei. / WWF-Pacific
Net retrieval while the sun sets over the mouth of the Dreketi River. Photo: WWF-Pacific / Opeti Vateitei.

The survey was implemented by WWF-Pacific and funded by the Mario Ferring Foundation through WWF-International and WWF-Netherlands, the Packard Foundation and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) through the Pacific Ecosystems-based Adaptation to Climate Change (PEBACC) project that is implemented by WWF-Pacific with close collaboration and support from the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of iTaukei Affairs and the Ministry of Fisheries.

Research provided by Dr Helen Sykes in 2018 highlighted that Fiji is home to at least 30  coastal and oceanic shark species with a quarter of these listed on 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).

This story was produced by WWF Pacific.

Banner: Deploying the gill nets in the estuary of the Dreketi River. Pictured is community rep Solomone Tuqara. Photo: WWF-Pacific / Andrew Paris.

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