Monday, 19 November 2012

American Samoa protects all sharks, plus three species of large coralreef fish in its waters

The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources has promulgated newregulations protecting these rare marine species which took effect onNovember 11, 2012. American Samoa has acted to protect all sharks plusthree species of large coral reef fish in all the waters of the territoryof American Samoa. It is now illegal to catch or even possess:

1. Humphead Wrasse;
2. Bumphead Parrotfish;
3. Giant Grouper; or
4. any species of shark anywhere in the territory orterritorial waters.

Territorial waters extend 3 nautical miles from the shoreline. All sizesand ages and any parts are fully protected, at all times, everywhere in theterritory. These regulations are the most powerful protection for sharksin the USA, and provide the only protection for the other three reef fishwithin the USA, except for where all fish are protected.

Because possession of all parts of these species is illegal, shark fins areillegal in the territory, including transshipping sharks or fins. Because none of these fish can be brought into the territory, the protection ofthis regulation may extend to nearby waters where fishers would bring theircatch into the territory. These fish were protected first with anExecutive Order of the Governor, and then additionally by these newlyadopted fishing regulations by the Dept. Marine & Wildlife Resources.

A recent scientific paper published by NOAA's CRED division in Hawaiiestimated that the territory has just 4-8% of the sharks it would have ifthere were no people (Nadon et al. 2012). Reef sharks are slow growing,late maturing, and produce very few pups each year, and thus can notsustain anything but the lightest fishing pressure. The primary reason forthe low number of sharks is fishing, though other effects of humanactivities, like sediment, nutrient and chemical runoff may contribute bydamaging fish habitat, and the number of fish is also affected by theamount of juvenile habitat. Our Marine Protected Areas are too small toprotect sharks, they swim over large areas and will swim outside the MPAsand can be caught.

There used to be a few schools of bumphead parrotfish here, but now onlyabout one fish per year is sighted, and they appear to be close to localextinction. Spear fishing using lights at night is especially effective attaking these parrotfish, because they sleep together on the bottom in aschool in the same place every night. Bumpheads have been driven to localextinction on some islands in Fiji, something we want to avoid here. Humpheadwrasse are less common here than many places where there are no people. Giantgroupers and some kinds of sharks appear to be naturally rare here andelsewhere. If the last ones are caught, they could become locally extinct,and we want to avoid that by protecting them.

All these fish are large, reaching 4 feet or more in length and 100-600pounds, depending on the species. Fishing usually removes the largest fishfirst. There is direct evidence from a NOAA CRED study that islands in theUS Pacific, including American Samoa, which have people have fewer big fishthan islands without people, while populated islands have just as manysmall fish as unpopulated islands (Williams et al. 2011).

American Samoa is now a world leader in protecting its large coral reeffish species. The American Samoa Government has adopted these newregulations to help fish populations recover to help create a balancedecosystem which includes sustainable fishing yields and supportstraditional cultural practices which are important locally. The largestcoral reef fish are overfished on most coral reefs around the world wherepeople are near, making this a widespread problem. Overfishing is one ofthe largest effects people have on reefs and can leave reefs vulnerable tomasses of algae growing over the coral. Large fish are very attractive forscuba divers, and scuba diving tourism is a major income earner for smalltropical island countries. In a few places like Palau, shark divingtourism is a major part of the economy. Dive tourism is non-consumptive,and where it is feasible, can provide much greater local economic benefits than fishing.

Nadon, M.C., Baum, J.K., Williams, I.D., McPherson, J.M., Zglicynski, B.J.,Richards, B.L., Schroeder, R.E., Brainard, R.E. Brainard, R.E. 2012.Re-creatingmissing population baselines for Pacific Reef Sharks. Conservation Biology26: 493-503.

Williams, I., Richards, B.M., Sandin, S.A., Baum, J.K., Schroeder, R.E.,Nadon, M.O., Zgliczynski, B., Craig, P., McIlwain, J.L., Brainard, R.E.2011. Differences in reef fish assemblages between populated and remotereefs spanning multiple archipelagos across the Central and WestPacific. Journalof Marine Biology 2011: 1-14.