Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Playa del Carmen - too late already?

Honestly: I fear it is!

From a witness report.
The sharks are being fished out right now (see attached photos).
There was a great agreement with the local fishermen in Playa del Carmen and they had stopped shark fishing completely. At the beginning of December however, a fisherman
from a neighbouring town captured and killed 21 bull sharks, following which the Playa fishers decided that if he could do it, so could they.
Twenty nine 2 m+ bulls have been killed in the last month or so, and no-one is seeing any live sharks at the dive sites.
I have just heard that there have been a couple of decomposing finned bull shark carcasses found on the reef in the last week - great advert for Playa!

How incredibly sad!
With that in mind, how long will it take until the site will recover - if all that fishing stops TODAY? Keep in mind that if Steven Spencer's account is in any way accurate, and I think it is, then those Bulls may already be the quasi totality of the animals visiting Playa del Carmen during the Bull Shark Season!

Are they part of a larger population from where new individuals may be recruited?
Maybe - but at risk of stating the obvious here: Sharks are not Teleosts and have no planktonic larval stages that may be carried in by the currents and decide to settle. Instead, any Bull Shark repopulating Playa del Carmen will have to leave its current home range and swim there. The motivation for doing so may derive from a past "good experience" and if so, the Sharks with that individual memory may now be dead; or, juveniles may be following adults and if so, those adults may now have been killed; more likely, Playa may be re-discovered by some roaming Sharks much like Fiji is being slowly re-discovered by the Humpback Whales. Yes those links are about Tigers - but Bulls occupy a similar trophic niche and certainly roam as well, albeit probably within smaller ranges.
All very possible - but this mechanism is bound to take a very long time indeed, likely way too long for any specialized Shark viewing tourism to survive commercially. And as the Shark tourism revenues will dwindle, the revenues from Shark fishing will look that much more attractive.
Yes, it’s a vicious circle!

But whatever the final outcome - there are lessons to be learned here!
And before anybody should feel that I may be attacking him personally and starts calling me names: this is not against anybody.
This is just, once again, a reminder that we all need to be careful !

Forget the romantic image of The Old Man and the Sea.
Granted, the artisanal fishermen in Playa may still fit that stereotype - but in general terms, the image could not be more misleading! Commercial fishing is big business and the fishermen are motivated, smart and dispose of the exact same, if not more resources than we do! Do you really think that they are not looking at tracks like these and not already finding ways to exploit them? Do you think that they're not already ogling the much-publicized mass spawning of the Snappers and scouring the scientific papers for the location of other Fish aggregations? Why do you think that I've erased the co-ordinates of the GW Café from my post?
Or, think Guadalupe: what do you think will happen to those GWs if the operators don't get their act together and the Mexicans close the site?

And lest you start mumbling that this is merely some "conspiracy" to promote Fiji against Mexico or the like: same-same here in Fiji!
This is what has happened last year.

Yes this is one of our Bulls and these are some local Polynesian fishermen.
We were only alerted after the fact and that Shark ended up being killed. But it had been caught within our protected Shark Corridor and we were thus able to mobilize our Reef Wardens and the police. Suffice to say that I'm absolutely certain that those guys will never, ever kill one of our Sharks again! (:

That is, if we don't stuff it up!
The Fiji Shark Project is geared towards long term sustainability. In theory, it has all the ingredients to run forever, to the benefit of the Sharks and of all its stakeholders: the villagers, the Country, our staff and even the local fishermen who profit from the spillover effects of the marine park and of course, the Sharks!
But take a wild guess at what would happen if we had the alas inevitable accident (there, I've said it!) on the Shark Dive and could not document that we had done everything humanly possible to prevent it!
Hence the ever tighter security protocols and hence my constant reminder that in our industry, safety must be our primary concern - despite of the incessant clamoring by some of our customers for more more more!

If the Playa disaster can have a meaning, it is this.
We can discount it as the inevitable result of a commercial Shark diving project that appears to have been poorly planned and poorly executed, and revert to business as usual; or, we may take pause for some reflection.
Are our animals sufficiently protected?
Are our current protocols the best we can imagine?
And if not: what can we do to improve on that, RIGHT NOW?

And lastly, if you plan to set up a new operation.
Start quietly, by furthering research and ensuring that the site is adequately protected and that you are empowered to enforce that protection - before publicizing the operation! And when it comes to choosing your protocols: this is an excellent start!

To those trying to fix the situation in Playa: wishing you the very best of success!
Suggestion: a stay of execution - enact a temporary chumming stop pending an agreement with the fishermen. Right now, the chumming is aggregating the remaining Sharks and only helping the fishermen find and kill them.
Please drop us a line if there's anything we can contribute.


Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

Awww yer being a Blog Dog again Mike:)

Fine post now if anyone will heed the sage words?

Kate Goodson said...

Seeing those dead sharks makes me SO angry. Such magnificent creatures treated with such disregard. Education, legislation and open discussions must be our weapons to save these important animals.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting blog. In the last section you talk about shark dives, is there a worry that the death of a diver would lead to more sharks being killed, similar to the sitution seen recently in Egypt? And do fishermen ever follow the movements of dive operators to find sharks to catch?

DaShark said...

Dear anonymous

No the worry is that the authorities would close us down.
As a consequence, we would not be monitoring the reef, the cash flow to the villages would cease and the fishermen would move in and certainly target the Sharks in order to sell the fins.

Yes I believe that once we promote our Shark dives, those media are not only seen by the diving community, but also by the Shark fishermen.

Examples of that may be the Burma Banks, Valerie's Reef in PNG and also, I believe, the Marshalls where the Sharks have been wiped out shortly after those sites became known as Shark diving destinations.

I even tend to believe that places like Cocos, Malpelo and Wolf/Darwin have been put on the map of the fishermen by us in the diving industry.
When I first went to Cocos in '88, no fishermen were going there and nobody was fishing for those Sharks - look at what's happening now, and this in spite of the attempts to protect them and the unquestionable benefits for the local tourism industry!

That was then - and now, it appears, it is happening in Playa.

We got to learn from that - the principal lesson being that once we start such a venture, we must assume the stewardship of those sites, ideally by getting them protected.

Shark Diver Magazine said...

Hello Mike, I agree with you on this blog. Here is a little bit of history on Playa. The dive operator discovered the bulls after having bulls come up from the depths when they were down there spear fishing. Bulls started showing up regularly once they figured out what the spear guns meant, like what happens in Florida right now in some places. So the operator decided to feed them, really more for themselves, not commercially because they felt it would hurt the diving in Playa - scaring customers. they did not want to promote it. They slowly started selling the dive in 2007/2008 to a few close friends. I heard about it, and started promoting it. So much of the fast fame is my fault. Something that haunts me, as I promote and tell stories about different places. I too am scared of fishermen following me and what I do. Its a damned if you do, damned if you don't. Last year the operator started trying to organize the other dive shops to get behind a protection movement, it failed. Because of the jealousy of one operator bringing in most of the business. Typical industry crap. This year after the first incident, the dive operators began rallying together. I attended the first meeting in December 2010 where the operators and the city council were gathering to discuss a proposed marine sanctuary. No-take zones and so on. Currently there is a war going on between the fishermen who are angry with the dive operators for this and may have taken the bulls in spite of this. The meetings to create a marine sanctuary are still going on. I have been invited to the next one happening next week to present the economics of eco-tourism from around the world to Mexican officials, and University heads. Its an exciting opportunity to kick start what I believe is what is needed for shark protection. I am sharing this with you now, asking for your help and blessing as I move forward with this. You always said I have some good ideas, now is the time to prove that I am not all talk. Now is my chance to try and help. I am asking for your help...I am hoping to use some of the information you offered me on how Fiji gets it done, so that I can have this information as part of the presentation. That is all for now.
cheers into a hopefully amazing new year,

DaShark said...

Wow Eli - my respect!

Certainly, whatever we can do!
You may want to start by consulting, especially the "Conservation" tab and sub-tabs - there's a huge amount of info there.

Then, please write to the dive shop & we will provide you with whatever additional info and documentation you may require, including financials.

Talk soon!

Gerardo Ochoa-Vargas said...

Any reaction so far? I mean, are the authorities going to do something, or will this slaughter continue? And what about the diving business there? ANY REACTION AT ALL?

DaShark said...

Gerardo, I believe Eli's comment covers that - they are talking to the authorities, as they should.

Yvette Oosthuizen said...

Is there any entity that we can make aware of this? Is there any kind of petition happening that we can join in? Thanks, Yvette

DaShark said...

Yvette, check out the link "lessons" in this post - links to groups & petitions there.

I believe the people on the ground are on it - I just fear that it may already be too late. Keep in mind that killing those Sharks is perfectly legal.

Gaz Cooper said...

Well that is a real shame and typical small minded thinking on part of the Fishermen, but in there defense they have to feed there famillys too but to decimate a resident group fo Big Mature Bull Sharks is just SAD and the bad publicity for Playa unfortunately will not be long lasting as the majority of visitors to Playa are not divers.

Gaz Cooper

Susan Bruhn said...

Before, sharks are very dangerous. But as what I'm seeing now and hearing from the news, I think humans are much more dangerous than them. Killing sharks and getting their fins just to have money? Crazy.