Indonesia’s First Shark Sanctuary

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Shark and Ray conservation is high on the agenda of many scientists and is a subject written about by even more conservationists. I am getting quite a few shark conservation blogs coming through now as more people are driven to write and share their experiences and feelings. All I can say is keep them coming. It shows we care.

We are finally getting into an era where people who are not directly involved with environmental or biological sciences are getting more conscious about our planet’s endangered natural sources. However, the knowledge that actually manages to get to our societies is limited and seems to be very focused on a couple of global ‘fashion’ issues like climate change, saving the dolphins, or transgenic corn.  Nothing against that, but there are so many scientific studies, so many other important topics, and so little that passes to our society that it almost seems like a waste. This narrowed-down flow of information also creates a phenomenon that is sort of known as ‘the science/society gap’ where much needed information gets lost. So now I’m writing about the science I’m involved with, not reinventing the wheel here, but instead aiming to ‘fill in some of the gap’ on the topics I love and study: marine conservation and sharks-&-rays .

Now, one of the biggest recent news for sharks & rays is the declaration of a shark sanctuary in Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia (http://blog.conservation.org/2013/02/raja-ampat-launches-indonesias-first-shark-sanctuary/). This is the first shark sanctuary in Indonesia and is a major achievement of the local Papuan communities, Indonesia’s government, and NGOs (Non-government organizations) working in this area. But to understand what the problem is with sharks & rays and why this sanctuary is such an achievement, I will start by explaining what the problem is.

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Black tip sharks are now protected in the Shark Sanctuary.

Besides being amazing creatures, sharks & rays are predators and have a very important role in keeping a balanced and healthy marine ecosystem. On the other hand, their populations support intensive fisheries and, therefore, human livelihoods all over the world. Sharks & rays occur in every ocean and in every ocean they are fished: from Mexico to Chile, from Japan to Australia, from UK to Cairo, from India to South Africa; everywhere. Generally, the meat is locally consumed, but the biggest trade and threat is their fins and/or gills which get exported to China to be used in traditional medicine and in traditional soup. Problem is, these animals grow very slow, they take a long time to be mature enough to reproduce, they have low numbers of pups, and they reproduce nowhere near as often as other fish that support similar intensity of fishery like tuna; their life characteristics are more similar of that of a whale or an elephant than that of a tuna or a sardine. The consequence of this is that sharks & rays cannot keep up with the intensive fishing they are subject of, nor do they have much chance to recover after been overfished.

The brighter side is that the importance of sharks & rays has been recognized in science for a while now, and it’s finally getting recognized too by the general public and government policy as noted with the recent addition of some species of sharks to the CITES list. Many countries, particularly those we called ‘developed nations’, have invested efforts in managing and conserving their populations of sharks and rays. However, many other nations are big consumers of this resource and have much less capacity for management or alternative of food sources.

Indonesia is one of the nations with the highest diversity of marine life but, sadly, it also has the largest fishery of sharks & rays in the world.

In a remote corner of Eastern Indonesia, although in the centre of the Coral Triangle (http://worldwildlife.org/places/coral-triangle), the government of a beautiful archipelago called Raja Ampat has managed to declare their waters a sanctuary where no extraction of sharks & rays should happen from now on. The local communities do not depend on this resource but are rather interested in looking after what is traditionally considered their water territories. Foreign fisheries are responsible for the shark & ray fishing in this area and they do this illegally. Moreover, the diving and marine eco-tourism industry at Raja Ampat is growing, providing an opportunity for an ‘environmentally conscious’ tourism that can appreciate this magnificent creatures alive rather than dead. The potential for sharks & rays to provide better incomes and livelihoods through tourism in this area is huge. So, I honestly think this is a great achievement and I may even venture to say that Indonesia is now one of the leaders in sharks and rays conservation!

manta-rays

Manta rays are also protected in the Shark Sanctuary.

However, it’s quite not the end but rather the start of sharks & rays conservation in this area. It was a long way and significant hard work was invested by many people to get this sanctuary finally declared, but there is still more work to do to implement it and monitor its success. Education, implementation, and monitoring of sharks & rays populations should now be the next steps to make this spot a real sanctuary where these amazing animals don’t go extinct and yet aid in the economic sustainability of the local communities.

So now I wonder, who’d be next nation lining up for sharks & rays protection?

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