With as many as a third of all shark species in the world facing some threat of extinction, the future of sharks has been in peril for some time now. This month, however, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands have taken a stand for sharks, creating adjacent shark sanctuaries covering 2.5 million square miles of ocean – an area nearly equal to the continent of Australia! With this move, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands join Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands, and Tokelau as countries that have created shark sanctuaries, more than doubling the area worldwide now off-limits to shark fishing. This largest sanctuary in the world also bans the possession, sale, or trade of shark products within its boundaries.
On December 6, French Polynesia created the world’s largest shark sanctuary at 1.5 million square miles, and the neighboring nation of the Cook Islands followed suit on December 19 with its designation of its entire exclusive economic zone – an area equal to the size of Mexico at 756,000 square miles -- as dedicated shark sanctuary waters. “We are proud as Cook Islanders to provide our entire exclusive economic zone…as a shark sanctuary,” Teina Bishop, Cook Island minister of marine resources told BBC News.
The establishment of these sanctuaries demonstrates to the world the importance that sharks hold economically, ecologically, and culturally for French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. Tekau Frere, technical adviser to French Polynesia’s environment minister wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post that sharks “have a high value in Pacific Island cultures…They are both respected and feared,” and Bishop stated that the shark “is very vital to the health of our oceans, and our culture.”
Sharks have not always known such respect and protection in these nations, however. Although shark meat is rarely traditionally eaten by French Polynesians, the demand for sharks in these island nations has been enormous in the last two decades. Frere explained that “with the development of shark finning abroad, the demand for fins skyrocketed in the late 1990s early 2000s. This trend rapidly spread to French Polynesia. In the early 2000s, tons of fins were exported to Asia and the sights of finless cadavers of sharks multiplied.”
These sanctuaries represent a giant shift in priorities for French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, as they recognize that the lost market for shark fins is nothing compared to the potential loss of sharks in their waters for centuries to come. These two island nations have taken a powerful step, and we hope that their excellent example will inspire countries around the world to join in this fight for the future of sharks.