In search of solutions

Words by Rafid Shidqi
Photography by Shawn Heinrichs

I was always fascinated by fish and the ocean.

When I was eight years old, I begged my parents for a giant fish tank so that I could collect all of my favourite fish. Every Sunday, my dad and I usually went to the nearby pet shop, and he would patiently wait for me to closely examine the Betta fish before announcing my favourite. Fish have been ever-present in my life, and I’ve always been mesmerised by their various forms and diversity of colours.

I grew up in the middle of a small city surrounded by buildings in South Tangerang; the ocean is very distant. Still, I was naturally drawn to it whenever I watched an ocean documentary with large marine mammals. After graduating from high school, I always wanted to explore something that matters to me personally. In my family, becoming a civil servant or an engineer was the more traditional career route. My family often laughed at my decision to study marine science, because they thought that my career aspiration was to be a fisherman. At that time, they believed that studying marine science meant that I would have to voyage for years out in the open ocean – they worried that I would be at risk of drowning and being lost at sea.

When I was studying marine science during my undergraduate degree, I started to develop my passion for conservation. I always love marine megafauna with its mysterious life histories; sea turtles, whales, and sharks are so charismatic to me. In 2014, I started to focus on marine conservation with regard to shark fishing issues. Indonesia is the largest shark fishing nation globally. More than 100,000 tons of sharks and rays are exported annually, pushing more than 30% of threatened species to extinction in around the more 16,000 islands. But at that time, contributing to marine conservation always left me puzzled, and I still wondered what kind of individual contribution I could make to help conserve the endangered sharks.

In 2016, my love for sharks and rays solidified when I joined the Lamakera Project – a consortium of NGOs such as Manta Trust, Misool Foundation, and ReefCheck Indonesia. The mission was to transition the biggest manta ray hunting community into sustainable alternatives to support their livelihoods in Lamakera village. For a city boy like me, issues like this seemed extremely distant. I didn’t realise that a remote community had been hunting manta rays for centuries. They have depended on manta rays for their livelihood and food security for a long time. This is only an example of many hundreds of communities that may be in similar circumstances.

Though it was a small community, solving livelihood conflicts and finding ways to ensure they no longer relied on hunting manta rays was not an easy job. The manta ray practice has been deep-rooted for generations, and proposing conservation alternatives means introducing a new and complicated behaviour change to this community. It will take years until it is finally accepted and adopted as a new way of life.

Alor fisher
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thresher sharks indonesia alor

As an Indonesian, my experiences in Lamakera have been very eye-opening. Since then, my mission grew from a simple interest in the life history of marine life to an intense curiosity – I needed to understand the balance between conservation and maintaining local communities’ livelihoods, which economically and culturally depended on endangered marine species.

Following my internship in Lamakera, I was offered a full-time position by the Manta Trust to work in Raja Ampat – the world’s epicentre for marine biodiversity. In Raja Ampat, I worked as a junior scientist to understand reef manta rays in the 990,000-ha marine protected areas. Unlike in Lamakera, manta rays were fully protected by local Raja Ampat regulation. The indigenous communities in the region have already been part of conservation activities and actively safeguard the local manta ray population. The area has become globally renowned for manta ray encounters in the wild.

However, with the growing tourism activities in Raja Ampat, many of the manta diving sites were becoming overcrowded. The boat crash risks increased around the aggregation sites where hundreds of manta rays would gather. Together with Conservation International Indonesia and Indigenous communities, the tourism association in Raja Ampat then proposed community-based tourism management to address this issue. As a junior scientist, my role was to develop a standard, enforced protocol for manta ray diving to solve tourism overcrowding in manta rays’ cleaning station.

Although I enjoyed my work and living for few years in Raja Ampat was a privilege, I felt the need to bring even more personal impact to my work. I decided to start my own project, focusing specifically on shark conservation. I started a conversation with people I’m proud to call mentors, Dr. Mark Erdmann and Sarah Lewis. I wanted to contribute to marine conservation, where it had not been previously initiated.

Those early discussions led me to speak with many experts, including Shawn Heinrichs, who shared with me his knowledge of the thresher shark conservation issues in Alor. Communities in Alor have depended on thresher sharks for more than 50 years – it’s part of their subsistence livelihoods that helps to put food on the table and pay for schools for their children. Although these seem to be similar circumstances to Lamakera, Alor communities are more open to embracing change.

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thresher shark

Alor is located in the East Nusa Tenggara Province, representing almost 30% of Indonesia’s marine protected area. However, East Nusa Tenggara is one of the most productive shark fishing areas, where many coastal populations depend on fisheries that have minimal management place. In Alor, though the practice of thresher shark fishing has been happening for some years, it’s still poorly documented, and previously unknown to local government institutions.

My work with Thresher Shark Indonesia was initially to discover the local thresher shark fishing practices, unravel the communities’ dependency on the fisheries, and find the potential conservation intervention that could protect the species. We also conducted the ecological studies by combining the satellite and acoustic telemetry studies to see the movement and potential critical habitats for future site-based protection within the Alor MPA.

The launch of Thresher Shark Indonesia has provided initial data about the presence of thresher sharks, as well as the possibilities for conservation intervention to shark-dependent communities. Our campaigns have reached more than 700 people. In 2020, the project established the first local regulation that focuses on protecting the rights of small-scale fishermen who are depending on endangered marine animals. The regulation set to diversify livelihoods, providing access to capital and markets, in order to reduce the dependency of the communities towards endangered marine animals, including thresher sharks.

Our acoustic tagging project, which was conducted at the end of 2020, has provided exciting results – three diving locations have shown multiple detections of thresher sharks. Two of them are showing multiple visits of two individuals over the course of two months after the tagging was initiated. This has raised a new question of whether there are cleaning stations around Alor. However, the two main locations were also close to the shark fishing grounds for local shark fishermen. Therefore, it increases the urgency to protect the area as a critical habitat for thresher sharks.

Our recent surveys have recorded predominantly pregnant females around the area. The main fishing ground for shark fishermen is inside the Bay of Kalabahi. Therefore, there is a possibility of thresher sharks utilising the area as a birthing ground. Although there is not enough data and information to draw a conclusion, continuous fishing pressures towards pregnant females would eliminates the opportunity for the sharks to give birth, and therefore undermined the ability to sustain the population in the future.

Discovering the first critical habitat in Indonesia, such as a nursery habitat or cleaning station would put a spotlight on the species. The local discovery of critical habitats could bring the policy changes at the national level, and increase the urgency of protecting them in the near future. Furthermore, If the critical habitat could be protected locally in Alor, it will give the chance of pregnant females to give birth and recover the population around the connected waters of Alor within the East Nusa Tenggara Province.

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alor, indonesia

Awareness amoung people in Alor about the presence of thresher sharks is increasing. Governments are now starting to value them as a regional asset, noting the potential for future tourism opportunities. Local communities have long understood the need to protect thresher sharks. Right now, our focus is to assist these communities in embracing new livelihoods, through providing them market access and facilities for fishing other species such as tuna, as well as starting land-based business that would reduce their dependency on shark fishing.

After several years working in the field, I started to understand that the value of working in conservation is more in strengthening the relationship with the communities. It requires the skill to listen with empathy, set aside our biases and judgment about how we value animals and nature. For Alor communities, respecting nature has always been a part of their identity; they have protected wildlife through their local wisdom to capture the marine life needed, not just what they wanted. From this principle, I also understood that they value the thresher shark as valuable as other fish, such as tuna and red snapper, which are also targeted.

The fish they catch that day means they have money to buy fuel to fish tomorrow, money to pay the school for four children, and money to purchase food for the family. Conservation can be a sensitive topic in this community. Though they are open to change, a traditional top-down conservation approach, such as blanket banning thresher shark fishing, can complicate the situation without proposing an alternative livelihood solution that can shift these fisheries.

There may be a willingness to shift away from fishing endangered sharks for many remote coastal communities in Indonesia’s eastern region. But the opportunities are often limited for them, either due to the need for retraining and/or the absence of necessary markets and infrastructures. Therefore, the proposed solution must be unique depending on the local challenges. Tourism could be a possibility for Alor, especially as the surrounding areas are blessed with thriving reefs, productive waters, and unique biodiversity. However, tourism is not something that could be equitable for the whole community.

After working for several years with indigenous leaders, village elders, shark fishers and local government, we started to see a way to achieve the desired conservation outcomes. It’s to protect thresher sharks and respect the traditional fishing practices that these communities have. Alor thresher shark fishers have been proposing to transition from shark fishing to sustainable, handline tuna fisheries to reduce their shark fishing dependency.

Thresher Shark Indonesia is now focusing our effort in helping these communities move into this transition by providing the necessary skills in sustainable tuna fishing, providing better market access, and infrastructure on the island to ensure they can increase the value of their yellowfin tuna, which are thriving in this region.

Conservation can be a very long journey, especially when our goal is to have both thriving marine ecosystems and coastal communities. Our job is to facilitate change, which can be hard to embrace for some of our communities. It’s also a continuous learning process to understand that there are ways to proceed without sacrificing the wellbeing of people to achieve our goals. The more I immerse myself in this work, the more I realise that there is always hope, and we do still have time.

To find out more about the impact of shark fishing on communities in Alor, read our corresponding article in Issue 18 of Oceanographic Magazine, where we spoke with Thresher Shark Indonesia cofounder Rafid Shidqi and SeaLegacy cofounder Shawn Heinrichs about the complex relationship shark fishers have with the ocean.

Photography by Shawn Heinrichs