Predator turn prey.

Tanjung Luar fish market, Lombok, Indonesia.

This is no ordinary fish market. It’s a fish market that supplies a demand for a product part of many cultures, for the greedy and wealthy to show off their status in a soup, and provide them some fake health benefits. But how I got here and why I came to be here was for reasons much more positive …

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Indonesia is one of the largest exporters of shark fins in the world. However, this trade is much closer to home than many would think. Britain itself exports more than 25 tonnes of shark fins a year, caught by Spanish vessels off the UK and other European coastlines and sent to Spain. This a global trade, and like many other wildlife trades, it’s traded for unsubstantiated beliefs. But why should we care?

What’s so important about sharks? 

Sharks are apex predators. They keep the oceans healthy by ensuring species biodiversity. By taking sharks out of the ecosystem, they create a ripple effect. Larger predatory fish, such as groupers, increase in population and feed on the herbivores. With less herbivores, macro-algae expands and in coral reef ecosystems coral can no longer compete, shifting the ecosystem to one of algae dominance, affecting the survival of the ecosystem. The loss of sharks and this continuous cycle presents itself within many ecosystems, in coral reefs, seagrass beds and results in the loss of commercial fisheries (1). Loss of sharks into the ecosystem can happen for multiple reasons, almost all due to human activity; bycatch, sport, cosmetics, accessories, sometime for meat, but mostly for fins.

Shark Fishing 

The reason I came to be here was through Project Hiu (2), an NGO founded by Madison Stewart, known to many as a significant shark advocate. The reason this non-profit was founded was because many people express the opinion that the shark fin industry is the fault of the fishermen, that they are the ‘evil’ ones killing the sharks and destroying the ecosystem. However, what myself and many have learnt from this experience is that these fishermen do not want to kill sharks. They love and respect them. They have to risk life and limb to fish such a powerful predator, travelling for weeks at a time from family and often into illegal waters. This is their only choice if they want to feed their families, and the wages they get are not worth the risk they pose fishing. Fins no bigger than a hand cost a few hundred dollars a kilogram, these men get the equivalent of cents.

So, instead, we came as tourists, some of the first these fishermen have ever witnessed, and asked them if they’d take us out on their fishing boats and act as our guides. They’d take us to some of the best snorkelling sites and surfing spots, and in exchange they won’t go out and fish for sharks. These fishermen became our friends, and as a result, Madison is able to bring tourists to these fishermen every month and stop up to 3 boats going out and fishing for sharks.

This hasn’t stopped the shark fin trade and it won’t. Madison has found a simple alternative, and replaced generations of shark fishing with sustainable ecotourism. This not only benefits the fishermen and their families directly but also the community. Local schools now have enough money for an English teacher, which will give the children more opportunities in the long term and ability to work in the tourism industry . Also, money has been raised to create a waste management system on the island, to create better living conditions and increase their ability to attract tourists to make this alternative solution sustainable (2). 

But this is an initative that can be used in many parts of the world. By introduce the possibility and opportunity to a community to supply a tourism trade, they are offered an alternative income that effectively protects sharks in an area known to be one of the largest exporters of shark in the world. This will hopefully have many knock on effects and benefits for shark species in the area to thrive again.

Some Facts 

At present, shark populations are declining at an alarming rate, below population stability. Each year, humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide, which in itself is a conservative estimate (3). The biggest problem with this is that sharks are considered uniquely vulnerable because they take long periods to mature and generally produce few young over their lifetimes (4).

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Some specific sharks are targeted in this trade, e.g. scalloped hammerhead and whale sharks, which has lead to at least 181 species out of just over 1,000 known sharks and rays are now facing the threat of extinction (5). The reason for this steep decline is predominately down to shark fin soup.   The soup was historically limited to banquets and weddings hosted by the most wealthy in China, but the economic boom in the country made it accessible to a wider public, resulting in its consumption doubling between 1985 and 2001 (6). Though China’s consumption has declined, other Asian countries such as Taiwan, Macau and most significantly Hong Kong has seen a huge rise. Price per bowl can range from just HK$5 to HK$2000 depending on the type, style and preparation of the shark fin served, the dish is a viable option for a large number of people.

To meet the rise in demand, shark hunting increased drastically. Typically there are two types of shark fishing, one where the whole shark is taken to market as is common with Indonesia and secondly ‘shark finning’ where the shark is thrown back into the water after chopping off its fins. Shark fins are the most significant factor for reducing populations today, though regionally there are variations. However, the demand for shark fins is arguably the most important factor in the fate of shark populations around the world (7).

Now. 

It’s been over a year since I was here in that fish market, witnessing a problem so obvious to us but not significant to most. I’ve read more about the by-products of the shark fin trade, such as birth defects from the high mercury content of the meat. Now more than ever we can see just how much wildlife trade impacts our environment, but also us. Most people will never set foot in a fish market like this. This day will never get easier, when the facts are right there at your feet. But what I saw with my own eyes with the fishermen and their children gives me hope the work Madison and many others are doing around the globe will make this part of the market a distant memory of which only a handful of people will remember, and there’s a different, more sustainable future for the next generation.

More articles to come about sharks in an upcoming coming shark series!

References:

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