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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Mysterious Mass Shark Death Reported In Fiji
Expert says pregnant female may have been killed for fins

By Tevita Vuibau

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Jan. 8, 2013) – In Fiji, an international shark expert believes the juvenile sharks that washed ashore on Nukulau could be the unborn pups of a pregnant female Hammerhead that was killed at sea.

Dr. Demian Chapman who is an internationally-recognized shark expert also conducted a study on the shark fin trade in Suva and he said there was a possibility of foul play in the deaths. "The concentration of so many washing up in an area does suggest a fishery discard. Notably, litters of 30 plus are possible in this species," Dr. Chapman said.

"Perhaps a gravid female was killed and her pups removed during gutting and discarded. Fin traders would pay good money for adult scalloped hammerhead fins," he said.

All the dead pups mysteriously carried similar injuries to their gills, injuries Dr. Chapman said could be attributed to small fish or crabs.

"Now that I see all of the pictures, I think that the gill wounds are likely from small fish or crabs that were scavenging the carcasses," Dr. Chapman said in an electronic mail.

"The gills are the only place where soft tissue is exposed so that the smaller animals can feed. These are all around newborn size," he said.

Dr. Chapman’s observations come after the bodies of 27 juvenile sharks were exhumed yesterday by a team of officials from the Department of Fisheries and shark conservationists in the hopes of discerning the cause of death.

Coral Reef Alliance Fiji field manager Molly Powers-Tora explained the dead juvenile sharks belonged to the Scalloped Hammerhead species commonly found in Fiji waters.

She said there were a number of theories surrounding the deaths including gill-netting and attack by an aggressive group of dolphins or other sharks, however, those remained to be proven.

"Hammerhead sharks stay in schools so the school may have run into other aggressive fish like other sharks or maybe a school of dolphins," Mrs. Powers-Tora said.

"It is also highly likely the sharks were victims of gill netting which would explain the injuries," she said.

Mrs. Powers-Tora said the conservationists would send pictures of the shark injuries to Dr. Chapman for further consultation before a definite cause of death was known.

"We have never seen anything like this before. We have studied sharks all over Fiji and this is the first time we have seen anything like this," she said.

"We do know for sure that the sharks came from the Rewa River delta as there is a nursery for hammerhead sharks there," she added.

Department of Fisheries senior fisheries officer Sunia Waqainabete said investigations were continuing and a statement would be released by the permanent secretary for Fisheries and Forests.

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