Study shines a light on Indonesia’s murky shark fishery and trade

  • Indonesia is home to one-fifth of known shark and ray species and to the world’s largest shark and ray fishery, but a recent study reveals gaps in fisheries regulations that facilitate illegal and unregulated trade.
  • Earlier this year, scientists reported that shark and ray numbers have declined globally by some 70% over the last half century, lending fresh urgency to improving fisheries regulations and limits on landings.
  • The recent study revealed major discrepancies between export and import figures between Indonesia and trading partners. It also documented the complex web of domestic trade in shark and ray products and a surge in live exports.
  • Authorities face challenges with verifying the origin of a vast array of processed shark and ray products, from fins and cartilage to meat and oils; new techniques that enable authorities to use DNA barcoding to identify protected species have the potential to close regulatory loopholes and protect threatened species.

As a fisheries biologist in Indonesia, Andhika Prasetyo connects with fishers by accompanying them on their voyages out to sea. He can always tell from their faces whether the day’s fishing is going well: if there are smiles, the catch will be good.

“When I see [the fishers] happy, I wish that they could always feel that way,” Andhika, an associate researcher at Indonesia’s Center for Fisheries Research and a doctoral candidate at the University of Salford in the U.K., told Mongabay.

But managing the balance between ample catches and long-term sustainability is a challenge. Fisheries authorities often struggle to keep track of where fish are caught across Indonesia’s vast archipelago and to trace their subsequent trade in domestic and international markets.

The complexities of shark and ray fisheries and their subsequent impacts on struggling populations is a particularly tricky area, according to Andhika. He recently led a study, published in Marine Policy, that identifies where improvements should be made to strengthen the regulation of such fisheries.

Indonesia is home to one-fifth of known shark and ray species and to the world’s largest shark and ray fishery, with an annual average landing of 110,737 metric tons between 2007 and 2017. While some fishing communities directly target the ocean’s top predators, the majority of that tonnage is likely bycatch; some 86% of Indonesian fisheries capture sharks and rays incidentally, according to a 2018 report from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Earlier this year, reports that shark and ray numbers have declined globally by some 70% over the last half century lent fresh urgency to scientists’ calls for improved fishery regulation and limits on landings. Cartilaginous fish are typically slow-growing and produce few offspring, so are especially vulnerable to overexploitation, whether it be through direct capture or bycatch.

Nonetheless, Andhika said there are trade-offs between conservation objectives and the socioeconomic importance of shark fishing in the country. “We cannot think of it just from the perspective of shark and ray conservation,” he said. “People’s livelihoods and diets must also be considered.”

He added that equitable solutions that focus on controlling illegal and unregulated trade of protected species are vital.

Whale shark
Whale shark with a boat in West Papua. The species is fully protected from all catch and trade in Indonesia. Image by Toby Matthews / Ocean Image Bank

Protected species slip through the cracks

Of the 221 species of sharks and rays recorded in Indonesia’s waters, only six are fully protected from all catch and trade: whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), giant manta rays (Manta birostris), reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) and three species of sawfish. However, law enforcers are often only able to control the trade of easily identifiable species, such as manta rays.

In addition, four globally threatened species — oceanic white-tip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) and three species of hammerhead shark — are banned from export, although domestic fishing and trade is permitted. Unregulated catches and ongoing domestic trade create loopholes that effectively enable products from these species to be laundered within the legal trade.

For example, unscrupulous traders reportedly buy export-restricted species from domestic markets to sell covertly on lucrative international markets. In 2020, an undercover investigation by Indonesian media shed light on the “tricks” used to conceal protected species’ fins from authorities. One method is stacking fins within the middle or lower layers of crates to evade detection by busy customs officers.

Andhika said such loopholes in regulations that facilitate illegal trade inevitably harm healthy legal trade that supports livelihoods and food security. This also means fishery regulations are failing to prevent the harvesting of globally threatened and protected species.

shark market
Brownbanded bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum) sold in Indramayu fishing port, West Java. Image courtesy of Andhika Prasetyo

Mismatches and discrepancies facilitate illegalities

To identify the most crucial regulation gaps, Andhika and his colleagues analyzed shark and ray landing data, trade flows, and import and export figures across Indonesia and its major trading partners.

They found substantial discrepancies between declared export and import figures for shark meat and fin products shipped to places like Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. For instance, Hong Kong declared significantly higher import volumes of shark fins than indicated by Indonesia’s export figures; on the other hand, Singapore declared much lower import volumes compared to Indonesia’s export figures.

The researchers say that while these discrepancies spotlight a lack of standardized protocols between exporting and importing customs authorities and inherent difficulties in categorizing different types of fish products, it could also indicate illegalities.

Between 2012 and 2018, these export-import mismatches were estimated to amount to roughly half of Indonesia’s export volume of these products, valued at $43.6 million and $20.9 million for fins and meat, respectively.

silky shark
The silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) is among the most commonly caught species in Indonesian waters. This one was photographed at the Revillagigedo archipelago in the Pacific. Image by François Baelen / Ocean Image Bank

The study also revealed a complex web of trade within Indonesia. Fishers typically sell sharks and rays whole at market, then bulk buyers cut them up and process them into products. Important transit hubs in Papua and Bali were identified through which products such as shark fins and meat enter domestic markets or are sold to exporters in the port cities of Jakarta and Surabaya on the island of Java. They also found that as little as 4% by weight of shark and ray landings were exported, a finding the researchers attribute to unsystematic data collection and high rates of domestic shark meat consumption, some of which goes unreported.

International trade in live sharks and rays, most likely to supply aquariums and high-end restaurants, mainly in China (including Hong Kong), Malaysia and the U.S., is surging, according to the study. In recent years, live shark and ray exports from Indonesia have nearly doubled every 12 months. There appears to be particularly high demand for coral reef species.

This is a worrying trend, according to study co-author Stefano Mariani, a marine ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K. “This is a huge problem because what people don’t know is that up to half of all the animals that are traded live for the aquarium trade die during transportation … it’s an incredibly deadly trade.”

Investigating a pile of shark and ray cartilage in a processing plant in Indramayu, West Java. Image courtesy of Marine Cusa

Heavily processed products elude identification

Mariani said a major bottleneck in fishery regulation is the difficulty in verifying the species identity of the vast array of processed shark and ray products in trade. Products range from fins, gill plates and cartilage to headless and finless torsos, skinless meat and shark oil. As a result, illicit products can potentially pass through markets or customs clearance undetected.

“When you have dozens, sometimes hundreds, of species that are collected, then processed and then traded … they’re just difficult to identify, especially after they get chopped and cut up,” Mariani said. “That means that the government has this big problem of wanting to comply with CITES” — the international convention to ensure commercial wildlife trade doesn’t lead to species extinctions — “but the workload and the complexity of identifying protected or endangered species in landing sites and markets is challenging.”

One solution is to equip monitoring officers with better skills and species identification methods. Although expert observers can identify protected and export-restricted species from fins or torsos, it is impossible to visually identify the origin of heavily processed products.

This is the next issue that Andhika says he hopes to address. He is currently developing portable genetic tools that enable rapid species identification using a suitcase-size DNA barcoding kit. The new technology would allow fisheries and customs officers to analyze dozens of samples on site, dramatically reducing shipment processing times from several days to a matter of hours — good news for traders and fishers who cannot afford to have their products spoil and lose value.

Nonetheless, closing trade loopholes is only part of the solution since it will not directly stop threatened sharks and rays from being caught in the first place. It will still be necessary to trace where protected or export-restricted species are being caught and to work with those fishing communities.

“It is a case of identifying where the biggest problems with bycatch and vulnerable species catches are taking place, and then devising a tailored plan for those particular fisheries,” Mariani said. “If Indonesia can improve the way they manage fisheries, I think it would be an enormous success and it could [demonstrate that] we can do it pretty much everywhere.”

Banner image: Study lead author, Andhika Prasetyo, identifying specimens of guitarfish and wedgefish at Tegal Fishing Port, Central Java prior to collecting tissue samples. Image courtesy of Marine Cusa


Prasetyo, A. P., McDevitt, A. D., Murray, J. M., Barry, J., Agung, F., Muttaqin, E., & Mariani, S. (2021). Shark and ray trade in and out of Indonesia: Addressing knowledge gaps on the path to sustainability. Marine Policy, 133, 104714. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2021.104714


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