Shrinking Indonesian shark fisheries spur a national action plan

Indonesia has the world’s highest diversity of sharks, with 118 species. It also has the world’s largest shark fishery. With recent landings topping 50,000 tons, the fishery focuses on species classified as “vulnerable” or “endangered.” 

Under international pressure, the country is developing a national plan of action to conserve its sharks and rays.

Like all big fishing ports in Indonesia, Tanjung Luar is one that you can smell before you see. At 7 a.m., it is a thick crowd of fishwives, turmeric painted on their faces as traditional sunblock and sarongs wrapped high on their tummies, hawking their wares. Every single one of them knows where the shark auction center is: “the furthest shed, next to the water.”

This is the biggest shark market in Lombok, and arguably the second largest in Indonesia (the largest is in Cilacap, West Java). The day visited, 51 sharks were on sale, the haul from the three-and-a-half-week-long trip of one boat. There were 21 hiu karet(“sharks with the texture of rubber”) that sold for $30 per kilo and 30 hiu longor, or silky sharks, that the auctioneer on a bullhorn had sold as a lot for $540.

The scale of this shark market pales in comparison to its past though, according to local sources. “There used to be many big hammerhead sharks sold at Tanjung Luar but now they make a rare appearance,” said Khairuddin, a biology professor at Lombok’s University of Mataram who has run annual field trips to the port with his taxonomy class for the last 15 years.

“There’s been decline in size and number of sharks sold here,” he told (Like many Indonesians, Khairuddin goes by one name.)

That shift signals a downturn in the health of the local fishery and in Indonesia’s role in the international shark trade.

According to a paper published in December in the journal Fisheries Research by an international team, 38.5 percent of 582 fins gathered in a nationwide sample came from species the IUCN classified as endangered or vulnerable. Half of the samples came from just five shark species: the endangered scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini); the vulnerable bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus) and pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus), and the near-threatened silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and blue shark (Prionace glauca).

Sharks are in decline globally. In some regions, like the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, the populations of certain shark species have shrunk by over 80 percent during the last three decades. And that fact is troubling not just for the sharks themselves but also for the ecosystems they live in. Sharks are apex predators at the top of the food chain, which means they both directly and indirectly control the population sizes of other species in their ecosystems.

Within this global population decline, Indonesia has a unique conundrum. The country has the world’s highest diversity of sharks — 118 species, according to the Indonesian fishery ministry. But with a landing of 50,730 tons at the last published count in 2012, it also has the world’s largest shark fishery. International NGOs have been pressuring it to curtail the fishery, but many fishermen depend on it for a living.

As one official with the Indonesian fishery ministry elegantly noted on his personal blog, fishery managers have to negotiate a fine balance. “Shark fisheries are a mainstay of the national fishing economy so national regulations cannot consider just biology, they must factor in the socio-economics of fishermen,” he wrote.

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