The ex-shark fishermen teaching schoolkids how to protect the environment


LOMBOK, Indonesia — Suhardi, 43, glides across a technicolor coral garden. Freediving down to the seafloor, he scoops up a handful of sand that he sprinkles over the reef. The reef becomes a blur of color as reef fish scurry from all four corners to see what delicacies can be found among the falling grains. Powering through the current, Suhardi looks more at home than he does on shore.

He points out a trumpetfish hovering over the reef below us, and a painterly Picasso triggerfish swimming by. Then Suhardi’s pace quickens as he points into the distance. He’s seen something that my untrained eyes are yet to pick up. He stays hovering above the reef knowing it’s still there. Then a blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) suddenly comes into view.

Suhardi isn’t your average snorkeling guide. Born on the Indonesian island of Lombok, he’s spent his life on water. While he now seeks out sharks for the enjoyment of tourists, he once hunted sharks to help earn money to feed his family and educate his two children.

Suhardi was a fisherman for more than 20 years. He first started fishing working on his parents’ boat, but was then asked to join the crew of a shark boat where he was told he could earn a lot of money. Back on deck, he looks embarrassed to divulge what a meager wage it was, but finally confesses he earned around $50 for up to a month at sea.

Now he and 12 other former shark fishermen are part of The Dorsal Effect, an ecotourism company that helps ex-shark hunters find a new vocation. Each week, the team takes groups of tourists, schoolchildren and university students to off-the-grid locations and guides them around pristine reefs. Each trip is designed to take guests on an exploratory journey of both the shark trade and marine conservation through the eyes of the Sasak people of Lombok.

Former shark fisherman Suhardi taking snorkelling trips. Image by Claire Turrell for Mongabay.
Former shark fisherman Suhardi taking snorkelling trips. Image by Claire Turrell for Mongabay.

Lombok is a hotspot for marine diversity, sitting just east of the Wallace Line, a biogeographical boundary separating Asia and Australia and their respective fauna. Pristine coral gardens and around 80 species of sharks can be found in its waters. The island is also part of the world’s largest shark-fishing nation. Only the whale shark (Rhincondon typus) is protected in Indonesia; all other sharks can be legally caught.

The Dorsal Effect first launched in 2013, a year after Suhardi met Singaporean ecologist Kathy Xu, who had traveled to Lombok to find out more about the shark trade. The diminutive but quietly determined Xu wanted to protect sharks, but because she knew shark fishing was poorly paid and dangerous, she wanted to hear the fishermen’s stories too. They told her how once they could fish for sharks close to shore, but now with the shark population dropping, the fishermen said they needed to travel farther out to sea, only to come home with a relatively poor catch. The reduced catch also meant reduced pay, so they often couldn’t cover their costs.

“Shark fishing is like gambling,” says snorkeling guide Agus Harianto. “Sometimes big catch, sometimes zero catch. The fishermen are always speculating.”

Shark hunters face other risks as well, he says: Traditional boats without GPS can fall foul of international boundaries. “They use the stars to navigate. The first time they know they have left Indonesia is when they see Jetstar flying overhead,” Agus says, referring to the Australian budget airline. “Then, it’s not long before the Australian marine police take them to shore and jail.”

Remains of a catch. Image by Claire Turrell.
Remains of a catch. Image by Claire Turrell.

Yet, when Xu asked why fishers didn’t seek out another trade, she learned they didn’t want to be separated from the sea. They saw it as part of their heritage.

But as they spoke longer, the shark fishermen talked about the coral gardens that could be found under the waves, ones that only they knew about. Inspired by a whale shark diving trip she’d taken with scientists on the Great Barrier Reef, Xu had an idea. “If such spots exist,” she recalls telling the fishers, “I could take tourists out with you and pay you more than you earned shark fishing”.

At first, Xu guided the former shark fishermen on how to become eco-friendly tour operators. They dropped anchor away from the reef, served guests plant-based dishes, and made sure all trash was taken back to shore. But then Xu saw that something special was happening: The former fishermen had started to take the guest experience into their own hands, making sure tourists felt at home. Suhardi painted “Welcome” in large letters over the front of his boat, fitted green baize to the top deck for outdoor seating, and hung curtains in the cabin so his guests could enjoy some shade.

Suhardi has already bought a new boat with his earnings from snorkeling trips. “Every day is my best day,” laughs Suhardi, whose smile always travels from his mouth to his eyes.

While they were receiving tourists from across the globe, there was another group that Xu wanted to reach out to. “I think it was the teacher in me who felt impassioned about influencing the young,” she says. She reached out to schools and created a five-day program that would help students understand the shark trade and local conservation efforts. During the program, paid for by the school and students, participants would not only meet the ex-shark fishermen so they could ask them about their lives, but also hear from NGOs such as the Wildlife Conservation Society about their efforts to slow the trade. The Dorsal Effect also hired marine biologists to host nightly lectures and help the students with their field surveys.

Students seeing the results of a catch at the Tanjung Luar fish market. Image courtesy of The Dorsal Effect.
Students seeing the results of a catch at the Tanjung Luar fish market. Image courtesy of The Dorsal Effect.
Students learning about the shark fishing trade. Image courtesy of The Dorsal Effect.
Students learning about the shark fishing trade. Image courtesy of The Dorsal Effect.

The ISS International School, a private school based in Singapore, was one of the first to join them. Students who were studying environmental systems and societies for their International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma could leave their textbooks behind and experience a fishing community firsthand.

The Dorsal Effect team strives for a blend of fun and gritty realism. The team took the ISS International students to Pink Beach, as they’ve done with the other schools that have followed, where they could take Instagram shots, and then to quiet coral reefs where they could go snorkeling. Here, the students would study the health of reefs for their school projects, logging the number of fish and coral in 10-meter (33-foot) sections, as well as noting down the depth of the water and distance from shore.

Students who visit The Dorsal Effect also take part beach trash cleanups by collecting fragments of fishing nets, plastic bottles and other detritus that have washed up on the shoreline and noting what type of trash is prevalent. They’re able to use the data they collect for the research papers for their coursework.

Another stop on the tour is the Tanjung Luar fish market. On the day the ISS International School visited the market, teacher Wesley Whitehead said he was told more than $100,000 worth of sharks had been hauled ashore. Seeing the bodies of the sharks lined up on the blood-soaked concrete of the market was challenging for some of the students. Others steeled themselves and gathered data for their reports, by recording the species and measuring the lengths of the sharks. “There were a lot of sharks that we saw. It wasn’t a pleasant sight, but it was very educational,” Whitehead says.

The students were faced with the realities of the fishing trade, but they were also encouraged to take a balanced view by The Dorsal Effect team. The villagers weren’t just taking the fins, and throwing away the rest of the shark; they processed every piece of the animal. While they did sell the meat and fins to buyers at the market, they also sold the teeth to jewelers, and the remains for pet food.

The Dorsal Effect also takes students on an excursion to the fishermen’s village, a small island that lies off the coast of Lombok. Marine biologist Bryan Ng Sai Lin, who was hired by The Dorsal Effect team, says that on one trip with students he was surprised by how quickly the young people understood the situation. “One of them said it’s good to think about conservation, but at the same time these people don’t really have any other choice,” Lin says.

Suhardi and his crew member say they are happy with their new way of life. Image by Claire Turrell for Mongabay.
Suhardi and his crew member say they are happy with their new way of life. Image by Claire Turrell for Mongabay.
A sign at the Tanjung Luar fish market declaring a commitment to stopping the hunting of protected species of sharks and rays. Image by Claire Turrell for Mongabay.
A sign at the Tanjung Luar fish market declaring a commitment to stopping the hunting of protected species of sharks and rays. Image by Claire Turrell for Mongabay.

The students who travel with The Dorsal Effect produce a report on their findings. Whitehead says his students at ISS produced a video that they shared with the rest of the school at assembly. Some participants, he says, have even more personal takeaways. Some of the students who were from China knew that members of their families could eat shark fin soup during cultural celebrations. “[They] said they were going to talk to their families about the possibility of not doing that anymore after being there and after experiencing it,” he says.

While The Dorsal Effect has been successful, it has still faced its challenges. When the volcano Mount Rinjani on Lombok erupted, flights to the island were cancelled and their bookings disappeared. The COVID-19 pandemic also hit hard, but the company still managed to pay the wages of the former shark fishermen. Xu worked hard to keep their profile high by giving talks for WWF and TEDx.

Conservation scientist Hollie Booth of Save Our Seas, which does not work directly with The Dorsal Effect, says the need to provide legal profitable alternatives to shark fishing is critical: “We are never going to solve biodiversity and environment issues unless we think about incentives and take local people’s needs into account. These kinds of programs are really important.”

Suhardi says he’s pleased he made the change to a new career. “I prefer to take people snorkeling rather than go fishing because fishing is exhausting, and the income is uncertain. I can earn money much faster offering snorkeling trips.”

His son taught himself to fish after watching his father, but Suhardi says this is just for dinner. Suhardi says his son has other career plans. The former shark fisherman reveals with pride that his son wants to be a policeman.

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This article by Claire Turrell was first published by Mongabay.com on 15 December 2023. Lead Image: A blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus). Image by Kai Squires via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).





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