Dark side to the decline of shark fin industry

November 6, 2017

PhD student Vanessa Jaiteh revealed the issues caused by a decline in Indonesian shark fin trade.

A landmark study of the eastern Indonesian shark fishery has shown local fishermen are being pushed to riskier, and at times, illegal livelihoods.

The rapid decline in shark populations and shark conservation measures are driving these men to high risk activities such as blast fishing, illegal fishing in Australian waters and people smuggling.

Over the past five years, Murdoch University PhD student Vanessa Jaiteh worked with shark fishermen in three remote coastal communities in eastern Indonesia to establish the sustainability of the shark fishery.

Dr Jaiteh documented the rapid transitions in the fishers’ livelihoods following recent changes in the shark fin trade and shark conservation initiatives, including shark-based tourism.

“Sharks are becoming less abundant and the fin prices are fetching up to 40 per cent less in the local trade chain – from fisher to patron or first buyer – than they did in early 2012,” Dr Jaiteh said.

“As a result, many of the fishermen find themselves in restrictive debt relationships with shark fin bosses, driving some to attempt high risk activities to support their families and reduce debt.”

As a first measure fishers reported staying at sea longer or changing their fishing grounds. Others attempted blast fishing to attract more sharks. Some desperate crews accepted the risks of fishing during cyclone season to make up for lost catches during the calmer months; many had relatives and friends who had lost their lives in a storm.

“When these strategies proved futile, some fishers turned to illegal transboundary fishing within Australian waters, once part of the traditional fishing grounds of several eastern Indonesian ethnic groups,” Dr Jaiteh said.

“Sharks are perceived to be larger and more abundant out in Australian waters. Many fishers have been arrested and their boats burnt as a result of penalties under the Australian Fisheries Management Act, and many fishers have accumulated substantial debt following their Australian court cases.”

Dr Jaiteh said there were few livelihood alternatives in these remote coastal villages so people smuggling, which pays approximately $2,000 per successful trip, was considered by many as the only alternative to shark fishing with comparable income opportunity.

“There is an urgent need to provide fishers with options to leave the fishery in pursuit of activities that carry lower environmental, personal and financial risks,” Dr Jaiteh said.

Before starting her research, Dr Jaiteh learned Indonesian at Murdoch University and in a three-week intensive in-country course. She lived with each remote community for three months to gather her data.

Shark fishers from Maluku and Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) provinces were interviewed on their perceptions of catch trends during the preceding two decades and were asked to collect fishing data during their regular fishing trips in the Seram, Arafura and Timor Seas.

Dr Jaiteh said Indonesia had been the top shark fishing nation over the past 20 years, averaging an estimated 100,000 tons of shark landings per year.

“For these remote communities, shark fin is an ideal product to harvest and sell as it is one of the most valuable fisheries commodities currently traded but doesn’t require cold storage or expensive equipment for processing,” Dr Jaiteh explained.

“It can be harvested with relatively simple gear, and even small boats can carry large numbers of the fins if carcasses are not retained. The dried fins are easily stockpiled in the absence of electricity and ice until the next opportunity for transport out of the community arises.

“We conducted a first evaluation of the eastern Indonesian shark fishery using fishers’ data and recollections of catch trends, and life history information from the literature. Perhaps not surprisingly, the fishery does not appear to be sustainable, and fishers perceived shark populations to be declining in all fishing grounds.”

Dr Jaiteh worked on her interdisciplinary research project with Murdoch University marine biologist Professor Neil Loneragan and anthropologist Associate Professor Carol Warren to gain a further understanding of the impact of the shark fin industry on eastern Indonesian shark fisheries and local fishing communities.

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