- Over a period of four months in late 2023, Mongabay spoke with fishers and traders dealing primarily in rays and sharks in Indonesia’s East Java province.
- Advertisements for shark and ray products continued to feature on social media platforms despite pledges by companies to prevent users from conducting transactions in wildlife.
- Indonesia’s fisheries ministry said more needs to be done to enhance traceability to crack down on trade in protected shark and ray species.
LAMONGAN, Indonesia — Wawan has traded in stingrays for years out of the port in Lamongan, a district in Indonesia’s East Java province. At dawn, fishers are often seen returning from the Java Sea to unload their cargo in port, where a shipyard backs onto a road hugging the north coast of the world’s most-populous island.
Ordinarily, Wawan sends the animal’s meat and fins two hours south to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city. The fins usually fetch 1.2 million rupiah ($76) per kilogram (2.2 pounds), while the animal’s leather is sold by the piece to artisans making accessories and other products. Due to customs requirements, Wawan relies on third parties to ship the goods.
“It’s done through other people, because you can’t do it if you don’t have permission,” he told Mongabay Indonesia at the port.
Wildlife is the world’s fourth-largest illegal market after drugs, people and fake goods. Trade in rare animals is believed to be worth tens of billions of dollars every year, owing to clandestine demand for everything from elephant ivory to tiger skins.
In 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organization, elevated several species of guitarfish, a family of rays, from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered.” The upgrade included the bowmouth guitarfish (Rhina ancylostoma), a ray that grows up to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) and has historically been prized for its meat and fins.
Catch some rays
Reporting by Mongabay has found that trade in shark and rays fished in Indonesia’s waters remains widespread in the country, with traders often operating illegally or taking advantage of loopholes in rules meant to protect some species.
The trade is particularly prominent in the ports along Java’s northern coast. The sale of ray and shark products also occurs online, despite public commitments by Facebook to prevent criminals from using its platform.
Some months before Mongabay spoke with Wawan at the port in Lamongan, an account on Facebook placed an advertisement on the social network platform looking for suppliers of shark’s teeth. The account owner wrote that they were prepared to pay top dollar, and within hours a school of traders surfaced, offering deals for an array of shark and ray body parts.
Facebook, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other environmental groups began collaborating in 2016 through the creation of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. The partnership set a target to cut wildlife trade on the platform by 80% within four years.
Facebook banned all live animal trade on its platform in 2019, except for verified sellers with legitimate reason to be in the business. In 2020, the partnership led to the creation of an alert informing users of the illegality of trade in wildlife products. The alert message popped up whenever relevant search terms were entered.
Indonesia is home to more than a quarter of the world’s 400 known shark species, a fifth of which are classified as endangered.
However, reporting since the 2020 deadline elapsed has shown that a brisk trade in banned shark and stingray products continues, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Mongabay spoke with the men who form the first rung on this illegal supply chain in Lamongan. Three traders, including Wawan, said they chose to participate in the business owing to the high prices they received.
Ardyansyah, a craftsman from the Javan city of Rembang who uses stingray leather, said he had been a buyer for more than 10 years, including from the fishers operating out of Lamongan.
“There aren’t so many players,” Ardyansyah said.
Among Indonesian rays, he said, the thorny skin of the porcupine ray (Urogymnus asperrimus) is the most valuable. Instead of a venomous stinger, the fish has a range of spines over its back for defense. Craftsmen polish these “pearls,” Ardyansyah said, to a shiny finish.
A 56-centimeter (22-inch) sheet of the porcupine ray’s skin for furniture and other purposes, he added, will fetch 800,000 rupiah, about $50. A finished piece of furniture covered in the animal’s leather once fetched 45 million rupiah ($2,860).
His buyers come from as far as Central Asia and China. Some stingray leather products go to Japan, where they are used as scabards for samurai swords.
To solve the lack of a certificate of origin for his goods, Ardyansyah uses middlemen to send the products to his customers. He works with businesses in Cilacap, a city in Central Java province, and CV. KD, a company based in Pasuruan, south of Surabaya city.
“It can be up to 300 pieces per month,” Ardyansyah said.
Like dozens of ray species, the porcupine ray is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN. But of the 8-10 ray species found in Indonesia that are used in leather products, only one, the dwarf whipray (Brevitrygon walga), is protected by the government.
“Everything we trade is still permitted,” Ardyansyah said. “If it’s protected, we don’t dare.”
A variety of protected species are known to be traded in Indonesia. These include the scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), bowmouth guitarfish and marbled whipray (Himantura oxyrhyncha).
Kasinah, a trader in East Java, told Mongabay she buys shark bones from suppliers around the province and ships them abroad. She said she didn’t always know for sure what kind of shark bones she was buying.
Traders often take advantage of regulatory loopholes to trade endangered species, said Okta Tejo Darmono, a researcher with the Indonesian Fisheries Resource Center (FRCI), a nonprofit that works with the government on fisheries policy.
Businesses wishing to export permitted species of ray and shark must obtain paperwork from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora (CITES), which Indonesia ratified in 1978. CITES accounts for more than 35,000 species, including 46 rays and sharks.
Ardyansyah did not rule out that some protected fish may find their way into others’ consignments.
“It’s because supervision in the field, especially the route through the supply chain, is weak,” explained the FRCI’s Darmono.
The Serang Coastal and Marine Resources Management Site (LPSPL Serang), a specialist management unit under the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, acknowledged the wide extent of trade in Indonesia in rays and sharks.
However, the true nature of this fisheries category is challenging to capture because some species are protected, while others are not. In 2018, the ministry issued a new regulation with requirements for businesses wishing to fish for sharks and rays.
“For those that are not protected, recommendations are still needed to ensure traceability,” explained Anjar Rusdi at LPSPL Serang.
Banner image: Blacktip sharks. Indonesia is home to more than a quarter of the world’s 400 known shark species, a fifth of which are classified as endangered. Image by David P. Robinson / Ocean Image Bank.