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Indonesia Shark Diaries

Blacktip sharks. Photo credit: Paul Hilton/WCS.

By Hollie Booth

If my last year of working as WCS’s Sharks and Rays Advisor for Southeast Asia has taught me anything, it’s that when it comes to sharks and rays, Indonesia is a melting pot of competing values and objectives. It boasts the world’s largest shark fishery, on which millions of people depend. At the same time, sharks remain a global priority for marine conservation while providing a major pillar of Indonesia’s booming tourism economy.

Designing conservation interventions requires complex trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and human well-being goals, as well as other socioeconomic and political agendas across local, national, and international scales. Shark conservation can also be incredibly polarizing, stirring strong emotions, which makes resolving these complex trade-offs even more difficult.

In an effort to illustrate these challenges, and how WCS has been grappling with them over the past year, I offer this group of five journal entries in recognition of Shark Week, the Discovery network’s annual, week-long  block of shark-based TV programming.

Enjoying a front row seat to the manta dance, Mawan Dive Site, Komodo National Park. Photo credit: Hollie Booth/WCS.

October 18, 2016: Komodo National Park, Flores, East Nusa Tenggara

I hold my breath and try not to move a muscle. I know the first rule of scuba diving is to always keep breathing but I can’t help it; I don’t want to interfere with her flight path. Time seems to stand still as she glides elegantly just four inches from my head, her spectacular 13-foot wing span casting a shadow over me.

I exhale a mouthful of bubbles as three more manta rays swoop around their ‘cleaning station’ in a conga line in front of me. I have just about enough time to turn to my dive buddy and make a shaka sign (dive signal for “siiiiick”) before a tank-bang rings out behind us and we turn to see a pair of 10-foot-long whitetip reef sharks cruise past. I let out a little squeal of delight through my regulator. My God, this never gets old.

Komodo National Park is one of my favorite places in the world. The crazy currents and colorful reefs create a mind-blowing underwater experience, where you’re almost guaranteed to get up-close and personal with several species of sharks and rays. It’s regularly rated as one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world, and it’s the first place I ever saw a (live) shark – a moment I will never forget!

Here, well-off shark-seeking foreigners pay US$100-150 per day for such a privilege, although it’s the manta rays that create the biggest draw. One study estimated that mantas bring more than US$ 10 million per year in to Indonesia through dive tourism. Some people are willing to pay a high price to keep these species alive.

WCS enumerators collect data on shark landings in Tanjung Luar. Photo credit: Hollie Booth/WCS.

February 62017: Tanjung Luar harbour, East Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara

I sit at the side of the auction house, trying to be as inconspicuous as an ‘orang asing’ (foreigner) can be in rural Indonesia. Four fishermen carry the carcass of a 6-foot-long hammerhead shark – suspended by rope from two bamboo poles –- from their boat across the beach. It’s landing day for the Tanjung Luar shark boats. They’ve just returned from 20 days at sea, and I’m watching as they unload their catch during one of my routine project site visits.

I smile enthusiastically at them as they plop the shark on the muddy tiled floor in front of me. The WCS enumerators pull open their tape measures and start scribbling notes. I’ve never seen a live hammerhead, I think as I smile. Only dead ones are ever brought in here. Next to me a guy is using a machete to chop up a large stingray with the skill and finesse of Jamie Oliver chopping an onion.

Outside the auction house the usual chaos of Tanjung Luar’s morning fish market ensues: Women sitting all over the floor with fish-filled plastic buckets, dust-caked kids clinging to their hips. Mopeds and trucks toot their horns. Chickens peck at the plastic-littered ground. The all-pervading stench of stale fish juice mingles with sewage and sweat. It’s an invasion of the senses.

Surf boards lined up at Old Man’s surf spot, Canggu. Photo credit: Hollie Booth/WCS.

Indonesia is the world’s largest shark fishery, and Tanjung Luar is the landing site for one of the country’s most well-known targeted shark fisheries. WCS has been working in Tanjung Luar since 2014, monitoring shark landings, building a relationship with the community, and establishing an understanding of the socioeconomic context within the fishery.

Our long-term aim is to diversify and sustainably manage the fishery – to protect sharks and rays and to alleviate poverty. However, with the current state of the market, there are no legal marine-based livelihood opportunities in Tanjung Luar that are more profitable than shark fishing.

That might be set to change, however, with government plans to introduce an export ban for silky sharks, which have recently been listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). Silky sharks make up more than 30 percent of Tanjung Luar’s annual catch, and an export ban could see the value of Tanjung Luar’s catch fall dramatically. “Banning silky sharks will destroy our livelihoods“, one fisher told my colleague.

With limited access to other economic opportunities, more than 180 households depend heavily on the shark industry to put food on the table and send their children to school. In other parts of Indonesia, previous falls in shark fin prices resulted in many shark fishers turning to highly-risky people-smuggling activities due to a lack of legal marine-based alternatives with similar returns.

Some people’s entire life and sense of well-being is intrinsically linked to their ability to catch, sell, and consume sharks.

Tourists enjoying a sunset drink on Bali’s sandy beaches. Photo credit: Hollie Booth/WCS.

March 21, 2017: Old Man’s Bar, Canggu, Bali

“No, I live here!” I yell over the music to the long-haired, low-cut-vest-wearing Australian who has propped himself up next to me at the bar.

“Oh really, what, are you – like an au pair or a yoga instructor or something?” he asks, sipping his bottle of Bintang beer.

“No, no, I work for an NGO. Marine conservation. Sharks.” I reply, using my right hand to make a shark fin signal against my forehead. “Sharks and rays. I save sharks.”

“What!? Sharks!? Really? Why d’ya wanna do that for? They eat us surfers!”

“Well, actually…” I begin.

He cuts me off as a look of suspicion crosses his face: “There are sharks here in Bali!?”

I take a deep breath. “There are sharks here, yes.” Now he looks terrified. “But they’re friendly ones. They won’t bite you. You’ll be fine.”

“I heard some dude up in Balian ended up in intensive care last year because a bull shark bit him on the elbow while he was out catching waves,” his mate chimes in.

I open my mouth, about to protest vehemently, then close it again as I remember that one might actually be true. I shrug. “Yeah. Maybe. Look, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re more likely to die from a vending machine tipping over on you or a coconut falling out of a tree on to your head.” The Australian surfer boys don’t look convinced.

Canggu is a hip, beach-side town in Indonesia’s biggest tourist destination, Bali. It’s popular with surfers, who invade the sea with their surfboards during the day before retreating to the beach bars to swig their Bintangs at night. Many of the surfers I’ve spoken with detest sharks, their heads filled with horror stories of man-eaters and the timeless ‘der-ner, der-ner’ tones of “Jaws.”

Sharks are a highly emotive topic and trying to explain their important role in regulating and maintaining functional and productive ocean ecosystems doesn’t really help to placate these intense, irrational fears. Some people would just prefer it if sharks didn’t exist.

June 162017: Tanjung Perak Seaport, Surabaya, East Java

I hear my phone beep in my pocket. It’s a message on the WCS Indonesia ‘Shark Squad’ WhatsApp group. News just in from the head of the Wildlife Crime’s Unit (WCU):

This is the work of a dedicated team of informants, investigators, and intelligence analysts working in partnership with Indonesian law enforcement agencies to arrest and prosecute wildlife criminals. The WCU is responsible for the majority of enforcement actions against illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia and although the marine unit has been functioning for fewer than three years, it has already supported more than 26 investigations of shark and ray-related wildlife crimes. This has led to 14 successful prosecutions adding up to 78 months of jail time and more than US $26,000 in fines.

Surabaya is a large city and home of Tanjung Perak port, one of the biggest international seaports in Indonesia. According to available customs data, Tanjung Perak handles the bulk of Indonesia’s shark fin exports, most of which end up in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan – where they are consumed domestically or processed and re-exported.

This is big international business, creating a value of more than US$10 million per year for Indonesia’s seafood industry. The industry is also almost entirely legal, aside from a handful of species for which trade is internationally “controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival” under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In reality, implementing trade controls for species that look very similar to unprotected species – and are traded in the form of chopped up, non-perishable body parts (i.e. dried fins and meat) – is incredibly challenging. Some people, including international criminal cartels, have huge financial interests in the shark and ray trade.

The bustle of morning seafood sales in in Tanjung Luar fish market. Photo credit: Hollie Booth/WCS.

July 1 2017: Sunachi Suki restaurant, Makassar, South Sulawesi

I barge my way through the bright lights and bustle of Indonesia’s fifth largest city, Makassar, vainly searching for a restaurant with a vegetarian option on the menu.

“I’m totally fine with nasi goreng sayur (vegetable fried rice) again,” I tell my colleague. 

He laughs at me and calls me boring. “But you had nasi goreng for lunch – and for dinner last night!”

I hate being boring with my food choices, but being vegetarian isn’t that easy in Indonesia, so sometimes you have to stick with what you know. We pass warung after warung proudly sporting dried sea cucumber, pungent dried fish heads, and seafood satay; followed by stalls boasting coto Makassar, Konro rib and bird’s nest soup. I’m enjoying the atmosphere, but it’s not going to get me fed.

“We could try a mall or one of the fancy hotel restaurants,” my colleague suggests. “Get you some bule (foreigner) food.”

“How about Chinese?” I ask. Makassar boats a large population of Chinese residents, so the Chinese food is bound to be good, and it makes me feel slightly more cultured than going to Pizza Express in the mall.

We hop in a taxi to Panukkukang and get out at a shiny shopping mall/hotel complex. “Sunachi Suki has good reviews on Trip Advisor” my colleague tells me.

We make our way in to Sunachi Suki and it’s packed. The waiter offers us a couple of menus and enthusiastically informs us that shark fin soup is on the specials board. I grit my teeth and smile politely. “Terima kasih!”

I realize I’ve never knowingly seen shark fin soup before and start asking my colleague about it. He points to a table behind us of around 25 slightly raucous, middle-aged businessmen.

“Over there, see the white bowls with the orangey colored stew? That’s shark fin soup.”

I casually peer at the dishes over my shoulder. It doesn’t look particularly special, or distinctively ‘sharky’ – it could be anything in there. But everyone at the table has a bowl, and they seem to be enjoying it. Ten minutes later they order an imported bottle of rice wine. Everyone fills up a glass and they make a toast.

“I guess they’re celebrating,” I remark as I tuck into my third bowl of vegetable fried rice in the last 24 hours.

Indonesian law enforcement agencies sort through a seized shipment of manta ray gill plates in Surabaya. Photo credit: Paul Hilton/WCS.

Demand for shark and ray products is the primary driver of the entire industry, creating strong incentives for Indonesian fishers and traders to continue to exploit populations.

 For many westerners, the idea of shark fin soup leaves a bad taste in our mouths (pun intended) and recent conservation campaigns have condemned the shark fin trade on grounds of unsustainability and animal cruelty, with efforts to ban the trade and make consumption of shark products culturally taboo.

But conservation is a relatively recent and niche cultural phenomenon, and consumer behavior itself is driven by a variety of factors, many of which are unrelated to conservation concerns. Chinese society has served and consumed shark as a gesture of respect and a symbol of power since the 14th century. These long-ingrained, culturally-complex values have in some cases been tied to a mix of respect and worship of sharks.

Further, we often assume that international demand is the biggest driver of shark and ray over-exploitation, but Indonesia’s domestic consumption of shark and ray products is not trivial. The nature of demand and volumes of domestic consumption are poorly understood. Three constituencies seem to be key: local fishing communities, for whom shark meat represents an important source of protein and food security; Indonesian residents in big cities like the businessmen we saw celebrating; and a growing body of international “seafood tourists.”

Data collected by WWF Indonesia in 2013/14 from 34 restaurants across Jakarta, Surabaya, and Makassar indicated that at least 170 kg of shark products per year are consumed in this handful of restaurants alone. Presently there is no tracing system capable of supporting responsible consumption and trade of these products, and the on-going vilification of the shark industry undermines market-driven opportunities to incentivise sustainability.

Some people have strong motives to consume shark products, and these motives are not well understood by the conservation community and can have complex interactions with conservation efforts.

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Reflecting on my last year in Indonesia, and on the diversity of experiences and interactions I have had, illustrates multiple sources of conflict around shark and ray conservation.

Going forward, we need to accept that designing practical solutions for shark and ray conservation and management will necessitate some hard choices and trade-offs. I believe that conservationists would benefit from putting aside our pre-existing values and assumptions about the “right” approach and taking time to understand other people’s values and priorities. We will have to make some trade-offs between the shark enthusiasts and surfers, but we might have more in common than we think. Either way, I’m certain that we won’t reach tenable solutions by ourselves.

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Hollie Booth is Sharks and Rays Advisor for Southeast Asia at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).