To catch a shark in the waters of Papua New Guinea, the men first sing.
They sing the names of their ancestors and their respects to the shark. They shake a coconut rattle in the sea, luring animals from the depths and then catch them by hand.
The custom, called a “shark call,” is practiced in the villages of Messi, Kono and Kontu on the west coast of Papua New Guinea’s province of New Ireland, a country of about 9 million people north of Australia.
It is rooted in the belief that sharks carry the spirits of ancestors and that by adhering to strict protocols, shark callers can call, capture and kill sharks without harm.
But villagers fear that this ancient practice is under such serious threat that it could disappear in a generation. At a recent shark song festival at Messi, people on the shore cried when a fleet of boats returned with just two sharks. Canoes returning empty-handed are becoming more and more common.
The practice is increasingly threatened by logging operations and the slow disintegration of traditional culture. But locals also blame part of the death of this beloved cultural practice on a nascent industry that is being tested in their waters: deep-sea mining.
Scraping the seabed
As the world fiercely debates whether international waters should be opened up to large companies interested in mining the ocean floor, Papua New Guinea is one of the few places in the world where deep-sea mining exploration has been conducted within territorial waters. .
In 2008, Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals provided its environmental impact assessment to the Papua New Guinea government to initiate deepwater mining in the Bismarck Sea, in the province of New Ireland, east of the PNG mainland.
The PNG government had granted Nautilus a license to drill for massive sulfur deposits (SMS) on the seafloor around hydrothermal vents. The target project area was named Solwara 1 (Saltwater 1) and would focus on the extraction of copper, gold, silver and zinc in that area, just 18 miles (30 km) from New Ireland’s coastal communities.
In 2019, after a prolonged period of complicated financial challenges, Nautilus went into liquidation and was officially declared bankrupt.
Although they failed before the extraction phase, locals say that during Nautilus’ exploratory work the huge machines damaged marine life and disrupted their cultural practices.
‘Our culture is dying’
Eliuda Toxoc, from Messi’s town, is a master of shark calling. He says it’s not just deep-sea mining that disrupts the marine ecosystem, with runoff from logging operations also a problem, but remembers when Nautilus ships came to explore for seabed mining.
“That was enough of a disturbance to scare off the sharks,” he says. “Before there were many sharks to catch, there were many. Every time we went out, we always came back with a shark. Now it is more difficult. There are many disturbances in the water and many noises that scare away the sharks. “
The impact is not just on the villagers’ ability to catch food and survive. “Our culture is dying,” he says, sadness evident on his weathered face.
Eliuda’s son, Amos Lavaka, says that the call of the sharks is extremely important to the villagers. “We have the stories and the wisdom that allow us to be able to practice this tradition, to be able to talk to sharks. And besides, it’s our food.
“The logging ships [and] ocean mining: there are many new disturbances on land and in the ocean, ”he says. “The noise and the impact of the dust and the new movements in the water… keeps the sharks away. They don’t come. Now it is more difficult than before to catch sharks, because they hide. “
Nautilus has questioned this impact on the communities, saying that the area in which they are licensed to operate is at least 30 km from the fishing communities.
The New Ireland provincial government, in a statement to the Guardian, said Nautilus had provided benefits to the areas around its operations, including health programs, water and sanitation projects, and had built a bridge near Kokola.
Nautilus also argued that: “One of the many advantages of seabed mining is that there are no local owners or people living on the site.” They state that the social, cultural and economic values of the oceans were taken into account in PNG, but are considered to have little or no impact on the proposed site. Solwara 1.
“There are no people to move,” they said in a statement in 2016, “No social dislocation at all, and no social impacts.”
Godfrey Jordan Abage, an activist from the village of Kono who has participated in awareness campaigns and campaigns against the Solwara 1 project, disagrees.
“Spiritually, we have this connection,” he says. “You wake up on the shore, you hear the waves, you can feel the waves, you get peace when you’re under pressure, you sit under a tree and you get this cold breeze and you see the ocean, it’s something that really connects our spirit.
“You can see these young people who are initiated [into shark-calling customs] they are different from the rest, because they understand the wisdom of the shark’s call; You are not allowed to go drink, be a womanizer, you cannot rob people’s gardens in the bush or steal people’s property, ”says Abage.
“The shark can feel you and understand you, so the communication between you and the shark is really about how you’ve lived your life.”
The people of Kono village have been hunting sharks for thousands of years, and Abage says that creates a bond in their culture that links the community to the sea.
“But because of what happens here, be it the noise of the sea or the sounds of sonar, it can confuse the communications of life under the sea … then it confuses the fish, the shark, the whales that are there. , and that is your home, your environment. With robots and machines under the sea, you will disturb and confuse communications between marine animals.
“If the shark song dies out,” he says, “we may only have photographs as souvenirs and children in the future will ask: did we used to catch sharks like this? Did our grandparents do this? “
In 2011, the PNG government invested around kina 375 million (£ 80 million or A $ 150 million) in the project, a huge amount for a country where the average annual income is US $ 2,386. After the Nautilus liquidation, the country was left with a debt estimated at that time to be equivalent to one-third of the country’s annual health budget.
Although Nautilus went bankrupt before mining began, the mining license for the Solwara 1 project has not been revoked and exploration licenses, renewable every two years, are held by Nautilus Minerals Niugini, a subsidiary of Deep Sea Mining Finance (DSMF ), a privately owned Group based in the Isle of Man.
A representative from DSMF said: “The very important past and future contributions and social benefits of the project are in the public domain and we encourage your team to research them to get a full picture of the project.”
They added that: “The orderly and fair restructuring of the Nautilus property and the project was also done in a fully public and transparent CCAA [Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act] process in Canada administered by PWC [PricewaterhouseCoopers]. “
Many people in PNG fear that the project could be renewed. DSMF lists the Solwara 1 project on its website as “the world’s first and only subsea deposit with fully approved mining and environmental licenses.”
In July 2020, the Solwara Warriors Alliance, a coalition of communities in the Bismarck and Solomon Seas calling for a ban on seabed mining, picked up thousands of objections from local communities, schools and churches after they The license was renewed, but PNG’s mining minister said the government would not revoke Nautilus’s mining license as it had not violated its conditions.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism