It’s not every day that you hear about the Marshall Islands. Scattered across a swath of the Pacific Ocean, these islands are home to only about 68,000 people. But as of this week, the waters around these islands may become home to a whole lot more sharks.
That’s because the government has decided to make all of its waters—more than 750,000 square miles, or about the size of Mexico—a shark sanctuary. This move will almost double the area in which sharks are protected globally.
Within the Marshall Islands, it will now be illegal to commercially fish sharks, sell any shark products, and use wire leaders (a type of fishing gear often responsible for shark deaths). In addition, all sharks caught accidentally must be released, and fishing boats will be required to bring all their catch directly to port for inspection—an important step in combating seafood fraud. Fines for having shark products will run the equivalent of $25,000 to $200,000.
Pacific island countries in general have been leading the charge to create shark sanctuaries, with the first such establishment in Palau in 2009. The Marshall Islands declaration also follows their move earlier this year to ban the shark trade.
“In passing this bill, there is no greater statement we can make about the importance of sharks to our culture, environment and economy,” said Senator Tony deBrum, a representative from Kwajalein Atoll who was a bill cosponsor.
The Marshall Islands, which still bear reminders of nuclear testing from World War II, rely heavily on tourism, particularly diving, for income. As top predators, sharks are crucial to ensuring the health of entire ecosystems.
Pacific islanders are not alone in working to protect these gorgeous animals. Any day, we hope that Governor Jerry Brown of California will sign AB-376, which would ban the shark fin trade in California—and the entire west coast of the US.