Through his camera lens, award-winning photojournalist Federico Borella documents the harrowing reality of shark fishing activities in Indonesia.
Indonesian waters are home to around 200 shark species but only one of them enjoys full protection from the government – the whale shark. The reality for other shark species can be best experienced in the small shark fishing village of Tanjung Luar on the island of Lombok, east of Bali.
Here, in the early morning, the motors of dozens of small fishing boats break the silence of the night. Tanjung Luar is known as one of Indonesia’s most important fish markets and in the hustle and bustle of the daily market activities, you can see sturdy fishermen drag sharks, from giant tiger to big-eyed thresher sharks, off their boats and onto the market square where the animals are supposed to get auctioned off.
Rows and rows of dead sharks, from smaller to larger specimen, lie on the cold floor. The smell of ammonia and the sight of baby sharks getting cut out of their dead mother’s stomach is not for the faint-hearted. “The first time I saw the landing of hundreds of shark specimens with my own eyes, I saw five foetuses come out of the belly of a pregnant female,” says photojournalist Federico. “I can vividly remember the very strong smell of ammonia that made it difficult to breathe as well as the loud noises from the cutting of the raw meat.”
Buyers are gathering around the dead animals to bid on the shark meat, the bones, the skin and, of course, the fins. While the skin is turned into bags, wallets or dog treats, the bone powder is considered a Chinese medicine. The meat, though of little monetary value, usually gets turned into cheap seafood. The most valued product, however, is the fin – also considered a Chinese medicine item and status symbol for the wealthy.
After they are cut off, treated and dried, the fins are shipped off to Eastern markets at big prices – up to 650 USD per kilogramme, according to Federico. Indeed, shark finning is big business. While the annual global shark fin trade amounts to around 540 million USD, it is estimated that up to 73 million individual sharks are killed for their fins per year. Most of these end up in shark fin soup that is believed to have several health benefits, such as improved skin quality or sexual potency throughout Asia. There’s no scientific proof for this.
While the popularity of shark fins in China as traditional medicine has been the main driver of the millions of sharks being killed annually, the demand has also significantly increased in other Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, according to a WildAid report.
The small shark fishing village of Tanjung vividly depicts the very beginning of this international trade. Indonesia ranks as the third-largest exporter of shark fins in terms of quantity. Federico remembers: “A large part of the island’s economy is centred around shark fishing.” In fact, hundreds of people make their living through shark fishing here but it is easy to forget that the fishermen are not the ones to blame. For them it’s a job that pays their children’s education and the food they eat on a daily basis. With no other major means of income in the village and the island of Lombok, shark fishing is a lucrative job for many and it has been for entire families for decades.
However, with the number of sharks decreasing at an alarming rate throughout the oceans, the catches off Tanjung Luar also become fewer. And in an attempt to make a living, the sharks become smaller and younger too. “This is also one of the major problems: The low reproduction rate of the sharks, and one of the causes they’re on the brink of extinction,” adds Federico.
One glimmer of hope that promises to not only promote shark conservation but also to give shark fishermen a different type of income is ecotourism. With growing demand for wildlife adventure experience, an increasing number of travellers want to have a positive impact on the livelihoods of local communities and nature as a whole. “The important thing is not to blame the fishermen, but to give them alternative income,” says Federico and adds: “Several NGOs are working on the ground to train fishermen and give them the opportunity to work with tourists. After all, the fisheries are simply not sustainable.”
One of these ecotourism projects on the island of Lombok is Project Hiu, founded by filmmaker Madison Stewart. The project’s aim is to provide the shark fishermen an alternative income by hiring their boats for tourists to explore the region and to swim with marine life, including sharks that are alive, rather than dead.
In an interview with Oceanographic Magazine, Madison explains: “Project Hiu employs a few of the many shark fishermen in this area – this creates jealousy and push back from the community. However, by helping the island and the school with educational materials and clean water and simple things a community deserves, it makes anyone that opposes my presence a public enemy to the many benefiting from these contributions. I never expected to be helping people so much but it’s been my most effective way into impacting this trade.”
Project Hiu, alongside similar projects, seeks to expand the number of shark fishermen they work with in the near future, hoping to impact wider communities and help more people, while protecting more sharks from being killed.
While these grassroots projects are an effective way to provide shark fishermen an alternative source of income, the huge demand for shark fins, and shark meat, needs to be sustainably tackled to have a genuine long-term impact. While there are loopholes in current shark finning legislation (one in Indonesia allows companies to obtain permits that allow them to transport protected species, for example) that need to be addressed and rectified, another major problem arises in Europe: the shark meat trade.
While the shark fin trade is primarily associated with Asian countries, a Greenpeace investigation revealed that the UK exported around 29.7 tonnes of fresh shark fins in 2018. And European countries are the main culprit when it comes to the trading of shark meat. Shark meat in itself is high in mercury as sharks are apex predators and therefore shouldn’t be consumed by pregnant women or children. Nevertheless, it is being sold in major supermarket chains throughout Europe, the USA and Australia. According to the WWF, “EU imports of shark and ray meat have accounted for 17.3% of global transactions since 2000. Spain is the world’s top exporter, while Italy is the top importer.” Interestingly, the global shark meat trade is primarily driven by countries in Europe and it is actually far greater than the shark fin trade.
Today, around 36% of the more than 1,200 known shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. It’s time we change the policies surrounding the global shark fin and shark meat trade. “With my photos, I hope to spread awareness towards an animal that in the collective imagination is still considered a dangerous enemy,” Federico concludes.
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