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As COVID-19 batters fishery, Indonesia’s sharks get a respite

  • The shark and ray fishery in Indonesia has largely ground to a halt as a result of plummeting demand due to COVID-19-related export restrictions and a domestic lockdown that has hit the restaurant industry.
  • West Nusa Tenggara province, the heart of the country’s shark fishery and home to one of the world’s biggest markets for the species, saw trade volume drop by 68% in the first quarter of the year.
  • Conservationists say this is an opportunity to evaluate and improve the fishery by beefing up monitoring and traceability to protect the sustainability of wild populations, while also supporting fishers with alternatives sources of income.
  • Indonesia, which has the world’s highest diversity of sharks, allows the catch of some endangered species for domestic consumption, but loopholes effectively allow the illegal export of protected species.

JAKARTA — Conservationists see an opportunity to strengthen oversight of the shark trade in Indonesia as fishing activity grinds to a halt amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

West Nusa Tenggara province, home to one of the world’s biggest shark and ray markets, saw its trade in the species in the first quarter of 2020 drop by 68% from a year earlier, to less than 1,900 kilograms (4,200 pounds). Much of the shark and ray products from the province are exported to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the U.S. and elsewhere.

“The current decline is due to falling demand, dropping prices, and piling stocks in warehouses,” Permana Yudiarso, head of the marine resources agency in Bali, which also oversees West Nusa Tenggara fisheries, told Mongabay.

While acknowledging the economic value of the shark trade for fishermen, conservationists say the drop in the market presents an opportunity to evaluate and improve the fishery by beefing up monitoring and traceability efforts to protect the sustainability of wild populations.

“I think fishers still hope to be able to catch fish, be it shark or other species, because so many people are involved in the fishery,” Ranny Ramadhani Yuneni, sharks and rays program officer at WWF Indonesia, told Mongabay. “But the most important thing is to support the sustainability of shark resources that have been threatened with extinction.”

Indonesia has an action plan to protect sharks and rays, but experts say its implementation is voluntary and it lacks a strong legal foundation to help fund conservation efforts of the species.

Muhammad Ichsan, a Segre-EDGE fellow at the Zoological Society of London who has done extensive research on Indonesia’s shark fishery, called for raising more awareness in society of the importance of sharks in marine ecosystems to reduce demand for shark and ray products.

“That effort must also be accompanied by providing other alternative sources of income for those that are in the shark fishery and trade,” Ichsan said.

Oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus). Image by Alexander Vasenin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Shark populations worldwide have plummeted due to fishing for their fins or through bycatch by fishers targeting other species. Twenty-five of the world’s 470 shark species are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN.

Indonesia, which has the world’s highest diversity of sharks, allows the catch of some endangered species, but only for domestic consumption. It also prohibits the practice of shark finning, where fishermen slice the fins off live sharks and often throw the fish back into the water to die. However, there are loopholes in the system that effectively allow the illegal sale of protected shark and ray species abroad.

From 2000 to 2010, the annual volume of the shark fin trade declined by 5%, while the volume of the shark meat trade increased by 42%. However, shark fins are sometimes reported as shark meat to evade trade restrictions, making the reporting imprecise and unreliable.

The market for fins is particularly lucrative in West Nusa Tenggara, Permana said. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shark fins typically sold for 400,000 rupiah ($26.50) per kilogram, compared to 25,000 rupiah ($1.60) per kilo of shark meat. But with COVID-19-related export restrictions and domestic shutdowns that have hit the restaurant industry, demand has fallen, slashing prices by half and leading to fewer fishers going out to sea, Permana said.

Fishers typically sell sharks and rays whole at market, while bulk buyers take on the task of cutting them up. The products, mostly shark fins, are sold to exporters in the port city of Surabaya, in East Java province.

Permana said the reduced fishing activity could be good news for replenishing shark stocks in the wild. “March and April are normally the beginning of shark fishing season in the southern waters of Indonesia and West Nusa Tenggara province,” he said.

A fisherman cutting fins off a shark. Image by Ahmad Muzakky/Mongabay Indonesia.

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