Officers from the Department of Environment Protection and Conservation (DEPC) and the Vanuatu Fisheries Department (VFD) recently completed specialised training to improve national management and reporting of shark conservation measures and obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The four-day workshop was organised by the By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management (BIEM) Initiative of the Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) Programme, funded by the European Union and the Government of Sweden. The BIEM Initiative is being implemented in Vanuatu by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in partnership with Vanuatu conservation and fisheries agencies.

The Republic of Vanuatu is a party to the CITES and Signatory to the Convention on the Conservation of Highly Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) through the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks (Sharks MoU) in 2013.

“The CITES agreement sets out to ensure that international trade of endangered species of wild animals and plants, or their products, does not threaten the survival of the species, and in this case, shark species,” said Esline Garaebiti, Director General of the Ministry of Climate Change Adaptation, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards, Environment, Energy and Disaster Management.

With over one-third of sharks threatened with extinction globally, and mainly from fisheries impacts, more than half of international shark fin trade and a substantial amount of shark meat trade is covered by CITES regulations and permitting.

Many species of ocean sharks, including the CITES-listed thresher and shortfin mako sharks, are caught as by-catch of the tuna longline fishery by Vanuatu flag vessels and licensed vessels, in both Vanuatu waters and in the high seas. A significant proportion of this by-catch is exported directly to overseas commercial shark meat and fins markets, either by helicopter, transhipment to carrier vessels or landing to onshore ports. This bycatch is subject to CITES NDF reporting.

“CITES member countries must demonstrate their shark by-catch compliance measures are adequate via NDF reporting to ensure trading is undertaken in a sustainable manner. Continued export of the shark species and their products can only be carried out if exploitation is proven to be sustainable via accurate NDF reporting, which has been challenging for Vanuatu government agencies up to now,” said Garaebiti.

The strategic training aimed to strengthen the capacity of the two government agencies to report on the country’s management measures for sharks and CITES Non-Detriment Findings (NDF) using a newly introduced electronic reporting application (eNDF), as well as carrying out NDF assessments on two shark species: thresher and shortfin mako.

Participants from the Departments of Environment Protection and Conservation and the Vanuatu Fisheries Department with Ms. Esline Garaebiti, Director General of the Ministry of Climate Change Adaptation, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards, Environment, Energy and Disaster Management, and international experts at the BIEM Initiative CITES sharks conservation workshop in Port Vila. Photo: Savvy Vanuatu/SPREP

As a result of the workshop, the DEPC is now considering extending current precautionary management measures, including implementing a two-year pause on the issuing of CITES export permits for sharks by-catch caught in the high seas by Vanuatu flag or licensed fishing vessels.

“In August 2022, the Department stopped issuing CITES sharks export permits because we were concerned about increased demand for permits without having adequate data on the implications for stocks of shark species,” said Mrs. Rolenas Baereleo, Principal Conservation and Biodiversity Officer with DEPC.

“The CITES workshop has been very useful to ensure Vanuatu is CITES compliant, and the NDF reporting process means we can now back up our management decisions with improved data and more cooperation with Vanuatu Fisheries Department who are the CITES Scientific Authority responsible for monitoring shark by-catch from the Vanuatu fishing fleet.”

Workshop presenter and CITES and marine species expert, Daniel Fernando said, “It is vital that any export of thresher and shortfin mako sharks caught by Vanuatu flag vessels does not have any detrimental effects on the survival of these species.”

“We worked with the workshop participants to determine the pressures on these sharks from fisheries and trade, and considered Vanuatu’s existing management measures to assess whether shark populations can sustain current levels of exploitation based on understanding their biological viability.”

Making strategic national fisheries management decisions based on improved conservation and monitoring data was a key objective of the workshop.

“This is the first time the Fisheries department has been involved in a CITES NDF training and it has been a positive experience. By workshopping the eNDF process, we have been able to understand where we need to improve management nationally to ensure the vessels flying our flag, that are catching and exporting these resources, do so sustainably,” said Lucy Joy, Principal Data Officer with the Vanuatu Fisheries Department.

“We are now looking at how we can strengthen our sharks management regime, including updating laws and working cooperatively with the Department of Environment Protection and Conservation and the Department of Customs to authorise exports and ensure there is an economic return to Vanuatu.”

“The eNDF reporting system is also an important management tool that can also be used to better understand the status of other fisheries stocks and improve decision making,” she concluded.

The Vanuatu government agencies are jointly responsible for submitting the Non-Detriment Finding (NDF) report to CITES.

The workshop is a core activity of the PEUMP Programme’s BIEM Initiative key result area 5.8: “Building capacity of Vanuatu to address regulatory and legal obligations relating to CITES Appendix II listed sharks”, which aims to ensure that conservation and fisheries managers work together to assess sharks and other threatened species.

The PEUMP Programme addresses some of the most serious challenges faced by the region. Among these are the increasing depletion of coastal fisheries resources; the threats to marine biodiversity, including negative impacts of climate change and natural disasters; the uneven contribution of oceanic fisheries to national economic development; the need for improved education and training in the fisheries sector; and the need to mainstream a rights-based approach and to promote greater recognition of gender issues within the sector.

This seven-year programme, worth EUR45 million, provides direct assistance to regional organisations to support regional and national level activities in the Pacific.