As we were doing one of our normal patrols around Irai island, the largest of the 21 islands that make up the Conflict Island group, we came across a group of young men who had set up camp. The twelve or so boys whose ages ranged from about 8 or 9 to the eldest who was around 24 years old. I say around as no one knows their exact ages because most likely they were all born at their homes on their islands with no doctor or nurse to help or record details, and these were their best guesses.
LIFE IS HARD FOR THESE YOUNG MEN….
Not one of them had clothes that fit or did not have holes and damage to them.
They were living off the small fish they caught, and drinking coconuts from the plantation that remained on the island with no money to buy rice.
Papua New Guinea islanders, used to rely on a fantastic system of local trade and barta, where they would grow and produce food crops, trochus, sea cucumber or beech de mer, turtle shell and meat, jewellery, local traditional canoes and copera (coconut oil).
Copra is dried in a wood-fuelled kiln, or in the sun, over a period of a few days. It is time-consuming, dirty, lonely, arduous, male-dominated, fuel-intensive and low-paying work. It is now what most communities rely on in this changing modern world to earn MONEY. This and trochus are the main income earning trades, as the barta system has slowly become irrelevant as money has taken over. As the youth population grows with one of the highest birth rates of all the pacific countries, and demand for mobile phones, motorized boats, fuel, and the basic necessity of food grows, so does the need for money.
The beech de mer trade was once thriving and a very profitable source of employment for many of the island communities, but due to poor management of the fishery and over harvesting of the sea cucumbers, almost to the point of local extinction, the fishery was closed, in an instant taking away any means to earn an income away for these fishermen.
It remains closed today with only a slight recovery in the population.
Drought has also engulfed these islands for the last 4 year and there is still no sign of relief having a huge impact on these communities ability to grow their own food and supplies.
This group of boys are doing one of the only things that can make them good fast money in the region.
That is the catch and finning of sharks.
As we walked around the camp we saw tiny little fins from black tip reef sharks, some larger whaler fins and one set of massive fins that really caught our eye. It was a set of fins from a Great Hammerhead Shark. When we asked the boys about what shark they had got these fins from and how big the shark it was, the leader looked around at the adjacent coconut trees and pointed out a tree that was about 4-5 meters tall saying “like this but much fatter……she was very fat so we cut her open and there were 19 babies inside”.
This was devastating for me.
Great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran)
I do not blame these young men for what they are doing, as they are just trying to survive in a harsh world where greed and money is changing their way of living. If there was NO DEMAND for the product, there would be no money incentives for them to keep killing Papua New Guinea sharks. As long as the demand exists for shark fin, even though its trade is illegal in Papua New Guinea, these young men, will keep indiscriminately killing and finning sharks. The catch that we saw here, was the catch of 2 weeks fishing.
The boys said they were lucky to catch 1 or 2 sharks a day, but on the lucky days they would get 4 or 5. Getting paid by the size and weight of the fins, the hammerhead sharks set of fins they said would sell for around 170 Papua New Guinea Kina, which is around $85 AUD. This goes a long way in PNG, however these young men are not just fishing for themselves, they are doing so to support their mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties and the rest of their extended families who all expect a cut. Not only this, but they must also pay off the canoe and fishing equipment that is constantly being lost or damaged as the trade which once worked throughout the communities no longer exists.
Their technique involves using a drum line, similar to the ones that protect our Australian beaches. It runs for about 100-200 meters with baited hooks every 10 meters. These lines are set overnight and left until the morning when they head to retrieve the lines so any shark hooked, suffers a slow painful death. The next day when the sharks are already dead, they a brought aboard the canoe, finned and the meat and body is thrown back into the sea.
Knowing it is illegal, but with no legal consequence for them, this practice will continue to happen. It is estimated that around 100 million sharks are killed for their fins every year. Scientific surveys have shown that shark populations have decreased by 60 to 90 percent in just the last 15 years because of the shark fin trade, and these experts estimate that most shark species will disappear because of longlining within 10 years. This problem is not endemic to Papua New Guinea, it is a global epidemic that has stripped our oceans of their apex predator, the balance keeper, which all life rely on, even our own species.
It is very difficult for me to imagine a future with no sharks, but i fear if something does not change dramatically now, that will be the future we will be leaving the next generations to come.