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Shrinking Indonesian shark fisheries spur a national action plan

  • Indonesia has the world’s highest diversity of sharks, with 118 species.
  • It also has the world’s largest shark fishery. With recent landings topping 50,000 tons, the fishery focuses on species classified as “vulnerable” or “endangered.”
  • Under international pressure, the country is developing a national plan of action to conserve its sharks and rays.


Like all big fishing ports in Indonesia, Tanjung Luar is one that you can smell before you see. At 7 a.m., it is a thick crowd of fishwives, turmeric painted on their faces as traditional sunblock and sarongs wrapped high on their tummies, hawking their wares. Every single one of them knows where the shark auction center is: “the furthest shed, next to the water.”

This is the biggest shark market in Lombok, and arguably the second largest in Indonesia (the largest is in Cilacap, West Java). The day mongabay.com visited, 51 sharks were on sale, the haul from the three-and-a-half-week-long trip of one boat. There were 21 hiu karet (“sharks with the texture of rubber”) that sold for $30 per kilo and 30 hiu longor, or silky sharks, that the auctioneer on a bullhorn had sold as a lot for $540.

A man measures a shark’s length before morning auctions at the Tanjung Luar port shark market, Lombok. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

The scale of this shark market pales in comparison to its past though, according to local sources. “There used to be many big hammerhead sharks sold at Tanjung Luar but now they make a rare appearance,” said Khairuddin, a biology professor at Lombok’s University of Mataram who has run annual field trips to the port with his taxonomy class for the last 15 years. “There’s been decline in size and number of sharks sold here,” he told mongabay.com. (Like many Indonesians, Khairuddin goes by one name.)

That shift signals a downturn in the health of the local fishery and in Indonesia’s role in the international shark trade.

A student from Lombok’s University of Mataram displays a specimen from his class field trip to Tanjung Luar port, Lombok. The trip is an annual event for professor Khairuddin (shown wearing a cap in background). The fish will be taken back to the university lab to be classified. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

According to a paper published in December in the journal Fisheries Research by an international team, 38.5 percent of 582 fins gathered in a nationwide sample came from species the IUCN classified as endangered or vulnerable. Half of the samples came from just five shark species: the endangered scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini); the vulnerable bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus) and pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus), and the near-threatened silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and blue shark (Prionace glauca).

Sharks are in decline globally. In some regions, like the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, the populations of certain shark species have shrunk by over 80 percent during the last three decades. And that fact is troubling not just for the sharks themselves but also for the ecosystems they live in. Sharks are apex predators at the top of the food chain, which means they both directly and indirectly control the population sizes of other species in their ecosystems.

Within this global population decline, Indonesia has a unique conundrum. The country has the world’s highest diversity of sharks — 118 species, according to the Indonesian fishery ministry. But with a landing of 50,730 tons at the last published count in 2012, it also has the world’s largest shark fishery. International NGOs have been pressuring it to curtail the fishery, but many fishermen depend on it for a living.

As one official with the Indonesian fishery ministry elegantly noted on his personal blog, fishery managers have to negotiate a fine balance. “Shark fisheries are a mainstay of the national fishing economy so national regulations cannot consider just biology, they must factor in the socio-economics of fishermen,” he wrote.

A fish seller at Tanjung Luar port, Lombok. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

That sharks are a mainstay fishery is clearer nowhere else than in Tanjung Luar.

In most of the market, underfoot is a thick sludge of fish scales and mud. At the shark center though, the floor is covered in ceramic tile — an indicator of its status. Longtime specialized buyers occupy the backbench of the auction center every morning that there is a shark longline vessel in port. Pak Ridi and Ryan Apriando buy shark meat for the inland towns of Amel and Motong on the small island of Lombok. Ina Sayful buys rays. Haji RP and two others buy fins.

Nothing is wasted. A man in front of the rows of sharks laid out on the floor chops six-foot-long deep-sea eels with a cleaver on a short log round. This is bycatch of the shark fishery. “There’s even a market for the stuff in sharks’ stomachs to make fish food and shark oil,” Raka Siwi, an official from the local fishery office, told mongabay.com.

: A local man watches preparations for a shark auction with his granddaughter in Tanjung Luar port, Lombok. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

Ryan Apriando, the shark-meat dealer, said there is a thriving local market for shark meat, and an export market to Hong Kong and China for fins and liver oil. “It’s a good fish, you can roast it on skewers, you can fry it,” he said. Not everyone likes the taste, though. Siwi has never wanted to try it. A hawker nearby claimed it is “too fishy tasting.”

More enticing are the wages available to workers on the six- to eight-gross-ton longliners that haul in sharks from off the coast of Indonesia’s eastern Rote Island.

“There’s more money to be had per trip than you can get catching reef fish or gathering lobsters here at home,” said Zainuddin, a man in his twenties who has been a deckhand on a shark longliner since he was 15.

A shark longliner docked in Tanjung Luar port, Lombok. This boat landed 51 sharks during a three-and-a-half-week boat trip in eastern Indonesian waters. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

There is a lot at stake in the fishery too, according to one local man. “Tanjung Luar boats used to go to Australia,” he told mongabay.com. “If the Australians catch Indonesian boats, they burn them and send the fishermen back.”

On the far end of the shark auction shed is a huge ray that looks like a manta (Manta sp.) — two other species listed as vulnerable that Indonesian fishermen are perceived as harvesting at an unscrupulous rate. But Raka Siwi, the government official monitoring the market, whips out a guide to confirm that it is actually a Japanese devilray (Mobula japanica), which is only listed as near threatened. “Tourists come and they take photos of these devil rays and expose them as manta rays but they’re wrong,” said Siwi.

A Japanese devilray on the auction floor at Tanjung Luar port, Lombok. Tourists often mistakenly identify the species as a manta ray — listed as vulnerable by the IUCN — at this auction center. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

Siwi is not the only one trying to amend the western perception that Indonesia’s shark fishery is unsustainable. In February 2014, the Indonesian fishery ministry implemented a ban on the fishing of all manta rays across Indonesia. It even established a manta ray sanctuary, the world’s biggest.

In June, the fishery ministry and the conservation group WWF held a meeting in Bogor to discuss a national plan of action on sharks and rays. Indonesia has five shark species whose trade is subject to restrictions under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES): the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), and three species of hammerhead sharks, including the scalloped hammerhead, the great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), and the smooth hammerhead (S. zygaena).

Agus Dermawan, the Indonesian fishery ministry’s director general of conservation, said the new national action plan will address all the country’s shark and ray species, not only those on the CITES list.

Grilled stingray skewers for sale at Tanjung Luar port, Lombok. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

“We are finalizing that plan now,” he said, though he wouldn’t say when the plan would be released publicly. “It will include the creation of sanctuaries, considerations for the socio-economics of fishing communities, and aquaculture. We have a strong commitment to preserve endangered species but there are also sharks that we can catch, process, and sell.”

Andrianus Sembiring, a researcher at Bali’s Udayana University, led the study finding that troubled species comprise a significant portion of Indonesia’s shark catch. He recommends that the ministry focus its funds on further research.

“Right now, the problem is the consumer,” he told mongabay.com. “When we ask fishermen why they target the endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks…they say it is because they can get a good price for these sharks,” he explained.

A fish seller negotiates prices at Tanjung Luar port, Lombok. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. “Indonesia has many species of sharks that are not listed on the CITES,” he added. His team identified 40 different species from the samples they gathered but half the samples came from just five species, three of which are endangered or vulnerable. Andre suggests that the ministry could promote fisheries in shark species that are in better shape.

Meanwhile, there is little research on those five species most commonly sold in Indonesian markets. Silky sharks are the most commonly sold shark species in Indonesia and the third most commonly sold worldwide, after blue sharks and scalloped hammerheads. Yet the IUCN lists the silky shark’s population dynamics as “poorly known.” Fisheries cannot be managed well if the basics of how many animals there are and where they are found is unknown.

Sembiring’s team is currently researching scalloped hammerhead sharks across Indonesia. “If we find there is genetic connectivity, it would indicate that this is a migratory species so regulations in Aceh, Java, and Papua would need to be coordinated,” he said. “In Papua there is a ban on shark fisheries. If the sharks in this fishery come from another region, this regulation would not be enough to protect local populations.”

Dermawan promised that three of the nine main strategies of the new national action plan on sharks and rays will involve research, including a review of national shark species listings, increasing the amount of data gathered on sharks, and building the capacity of field-based data collectors.

At Tanjung Luar port, Lombok, a shark longline vessel crewman holds up a juvenile shark that was caught as bycatch. Photo credit: Melati Kaye.

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