PACIFIC HARBOUR, Fiji — As the divers’ air bubbles sashayed to the surface 100 feet above, their eyes focused on the scene emerging in front of them.
A 10-foot female bull shark appeared, almost mirage-like, out of the blue beyond. Another entered, stage left. Then one on the right. And another.
Soon a dozen sharks were in view, some swimming within several feet of scuba spectators lined up to watch along a row of coral and rocky rubble.
A few certified dive masters orchestrated the show. Some hold dual roles as marine biologists and sheriffs of the sea, working to enforce the laws of Fiji’s first marine national park while educating a steady stream of tourists on the importance of shark conservation.
One swam over to a submerged trash can that the dive operator had placed for the show. He pulled out a tuna head and with a flip of his wrist let it float away, its lifeless eyes unblinking.
A 9-foot bull shark cut through a school of smaller fish, devouring it in a couple of bites. A few of the dozen divers who paid to see this world-renowned spectacle emitted muffled squeals of joy through their breathing regulators.
As Ben Saqata of Beqa Adventure Divers explained on the boat ride out to the lagoon for the dive, these apex predators are key to maintaining balanced ecosystems. They keep species down the food chain in check so those animals in turn do not dominate the food sources below them, and so on.
He said he’s seen this no-take zone become a spawning ground for other fish, and there’s been a spillover effect, pleasing local fishermen who ply the waters outside its boundaries.
Sharks are revered by many Fijians but face threats from fishermen who target certain species for their meat or fins. Protecting them has been the reserve’s primary mission, but the benefit has extended far beyond by generating millions of tourism dollars for the local economy.
Hawaii officials have been looking to places like Fiji for marine management ideas, given their similarities as remote island chains with economies driven largely by visitors who travel from afar to experience the natural resources.
Gov. David Ige announced in September his commitment for the state to “effectively manage” 30 percent of its nearshore fisheries by 2030. It’s unclear what that will entail, but it has at least set a course.
The plan does not have specific shark provisions and the governor, through his spokeswoman, declined to comment for this report.
Ige has expressed concern about Hawaii’s marine ecosystems in a broader sense at recent environmental conferences, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in September, where he raised the issue of climate change and its disproportionate effects on island communities.
A new marine reserve to protect nearshore waters may not be in the state’s future. But officials are looking at the process Fiji went through to establish its park
The idea of incorporating local knowledge, the best available science and traditional practices, as Fiji, the Republic of Palau and other nations have done, is being used to manage smaller areas around Hawaii, said state Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Suzanne Case.
The north shore of Kauai and west side of the Big Island now have so-called community-based subsistence fishing areas. Others are in the works for Maui and Oahu. Each has its own management measures specific to the area, developed by those communities in conjunction with the state.
DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said the department doesn’t have any internal expertise on sharks and deferred to University of Hawaii scientist Carl Meyer, who did not respond to requests for comment. The state Division of Aquatic Resources also did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’m sure that Hawaii can learn from anyplace in the world that’s trying new things,” said William Aila, a fisherman, diver and former head of DLNR who now serves as deputy director of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
“If you take a look at the community-based fisheries management initiatives that are going on around the state, you have sort of this lab of fisheries management that’s coming from the ground up,” he said.
“I know for a fact that those folks are researching everything that’s happened in the past in Hawaii, everything that’s happened in other parts of the world, and that’s being included in their individual assessments of what they’d like to see happen,” Aila said.
Beqa Adventure Divers, based on the south shore of Fiji’s main island, has been taking customers out to dive the reefs of Viti Levu since 2004 when the Shark Reef Marine Reserve was established.
The reserve, which became a national park in 2014, offers exhilarating sights of several shark species amid plentiful corals and a wide range of fish of all sizes and colors.
The company’s director, Mike Neumann, said its offering a lot more than good diving.
“We’re a conservation project running a dive shop,” he said. “It’s not the other way around.”
He acknowledges that not everyone supports feeding the sharks. Critics say it changes their natural behavior and can have other consequences, but Neumann pointed at studies showing little to no effect on the shark populations in the reserve. He noted there have been no shark bite incidents during any of the tours.
One study found the contents of their stomachs was less than 1 percent tuna, which is what the dive shop feeds them. Another found less diversity in the sharks going to the site; the bulls were outcompeting the tigers and other species.
“People who feed sharks are called fishermen — not a few dive operators,” Neumann said.
The bigger point, he said, has nothing to do with feeding or not feeding sharks, but instead the reserve’s value as “a proof of the concept that something like this can be done in conservation.”
Beqa Adventure Divers partnered with Fiji’s government and neighboring villages to establish the reserve and now runs the park’s day-to-day operations.
Its employees include marine biologists who conduct shark research that’s been cited in international studies. All the workers are deputized fish wardens who have police powers to enforce laws banning fishing. That makes up for the government’s lack of resources for enforcement — a major issue in any marine protected area, including the massive Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Customers pay a marine park fee to dive in the reserve. The money goes to the villages in exchange for giving up their right to fish there.
Neumann said their waters have proven more valuable as a protected reserve than a fishing ground. A 2011 study determined shark diving contributed $42.2 million to Fiji’s economy the previous year.
“You can’t protect jaguars if you don’t protect the jungle,” Neumann said.
Shark conservation efforts have increased in recent years in Hawaii but there’s debate in the scientific community over whether Hawaii’s nearshore sharks need further protection.
Unlike in Fiji and other parts of the Pacific, sharks are not targeted in Hawaii for food and the state passed a ban on the trade of shark fins in 2010.
The real threat to sharks in Hawaii comes from their food sources being depleted, be it from commercial and recreational fishermen or habitat loss due to polluted runoff.
Scientist Marc Nadon of the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at the University of Hawaii and his colleagues wrote a paper in 2012 estimating that the number of Pacific reef sharks had plummeted 90 percent in Hawaii.
The study found reef shark populations to be below 10 percent of the level they should be around populated islands, but could not determine the reasons for this depletion. That paper speculated that commercial and recreational fishing and an overall reduction in the amount of fish the sharks eat could explain why.
A follow-up to that study is expected within a few months, which could make its findings more defensible. The original study was criticized by some people because it relied on the observations of divers towed behind boats at a maximum 30 meters’ depth. The follow-up study uses cameras that extend down to 100 meters or more.
“We’re not saying there are no more reef sharks in the Main Hawaiian Islands, they’re still there. We’re talking about abundance,” Nadon said.
“Most people just snorkel around the main eight Hawaiian Islands and that’s their experience of what this is,” he said. “But if you go to remote areas of the Pacific, you almost don’t need the data. You just see it.”
Designating certain waters as protected marine areas would not be enough to stop the decline in reef shark stocks, Nadon said.
“The recent implementation of marine national monuments at most isolated U.S. Pacific islands may substantially increase the probability of persistence of reef shark populations, but effective enforcement and additional fishing regulations elsewhere would also be necessary to slow the decline of these species,” he said.
Scientist Kim Holland of the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology was among those skeptical of the findings that showed reef shark populations at such low levels in Hawaii.
Just because people do not encounter sharks as frequently in Hawaii as they do in places like Fiji does not mean they are not around, he said, noting poorer water visibility as one reason.
“There’s a lot of hidden shark biomass in Hawaiian waters,” Holland said.
He was careful to make the distinction between nearshore sharks, like blacktip reef sharks, and open-ocean sharks, like tiger sharks. The latter category faces significant threats, he said, because they are targeted for their fins and killed as bycatch.
If there has been a depletion in nearshore sharks, Holland said he would agree with Nadon it’s likely due to insufficient food, which would mean that addressing fishing could help.
“One of the real pressures on our reefs is gill nets are still allowed to be used in Hawaiian waters and not in the traditional sense — Polynesians only had so much capacity,” Holland said.
Restricting gill nets would help control fishing pressure on the reefs, he said, which would in turn help maintain healthy shark populations.
“It’s a hard nut to crack though because of the intersection between modern fisheries biology and advocating for traditional harvesting rights,” Holland said. “You get into that whole tension between modern fisheries management and traditional gathering rights.”
That’s a familiar battle in Fiji. Neumann, the shark dive director, said the problem is that the villages there have been fishing the same waters for generations but the fish population did not keep up with the human population.
“You can go anywhere down the coast and there is nothing there,” he said. “But how do you tell subsistence fishermen that they have to manage their resource?”
To Aila, the answer could be in the Hawaiian concept of reciprocity.
“It’s not only about the ‘right’ to fish,” he said. “It’s about, I have a responsibility to fish and in how I conduct myself.”
In order to continue fishing, Aila said, “we have to make sure we give back in terms of management or on a personal level a relationship — cleaning up marine debris or fishing lines.”
Neumann, who has spent time in Hawaii and is close with many in the science and conservation communities here, said he isn’t holding his breath for Hawaii to take strong actions to protect its waters even though the state’s economy and the public’s health depends on it.
“Unless the government gets some balls, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “The question for Hawaii is what kind of ocean do you want to show your tourists?”