Sharks are a vital component of our complex marine environment. Without these apex predators, this ecosystem risks falling out of balance and may ultimately collapse. Worldwide, fishing is pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
"A Fish Full of Dollars" is a documentary examining Indonesia's role as the number one shark fishing nation in the world. The film is a case study about Tanjung Luar, a fishing village in East Lombok, where sharks are actively targeted for their fins, and where their loss may ultimately have devastating effects on a local community that is already living on the poverty line. What will happen to these people if they unwittingly demolish their own fisheries by exhausting this resource completely?
Shark fin soup, a cultural symbol of prosperity and good fortune, is traditionally served at Chinese New Year celebrations, banquets, and weddings. Hong Kong and Guangzhou are major hubs for the trade, and despite past reports of falling demand, recent surveys show a surprising amount of shark fin is still being consumed. The price of the life of a shark is simply getting cheaper by the year.
Mantas and mobulas face similar harrowing circumstances. They are fished primarily for their gill plates, to be used in unproven and profit-driven "alternative medicines" touted as traditional cures. It is notable that even official Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners do not support this trade.
Manta flesh is nearly inedible and without the value of the gills for spurious remedies, it is unlikely they would be a target. However, despite laws banning the fishing of mantas in Indonesia, some fishermen driven by fast profits, still consider the risks worth taking.
There are laws protecting some species of sharks and rays in Indonesia. Marine Parks have been established in Raja Ampat and Komodo. International protection agency CITES recently added Thresher sharks, Silky sharks and Mobula rays to its Appendix II, which offers increased protection and regulation through supervision and accountability.
However, both lack of law enforcement and corruption are major obstacles in Indonesia.
As international pressure mounts, airlines and shipping companies are gradually responding to the outcries. Recently, Cathay Pacific and Air China banned the shipment of shark fins, a huge win in the battle to save sharks. However, FedEx, China Airlines, Lion Air (a local Indonesian airline) and numerous others, still actively participate in the shipment of shark fins.
The first time I went to Tanjung Luar I had only been in Indonesia for 2 or 3 months, I didn't speak Indonesian, didn't understand the culture or the people, and I was very apprehensive about going to the market.
Tanjung Luar was a horrifying place to my western sensitivities, and my heart full of tender spots for sharks and rays. The reality of what I saw appalled me. However, I was a little afraid of talking to the fishermen, and of offending them by filming too closely.
Although filming here was shocking and heartbreaking, I forced myself to turn off my sensitivity and focus on the job of filming. It was only later, when I began to edit, that I could not help having an emotional reaction. I sat at my desk and cried.
After this first trip, I made a short film, to create awareness in the dive community of Gili Trawangan where I worked and lived, where fishing for sharks and rays directly impacts on the dive industry. A local fishing boat was witnessed on several occasions with a manta ray catch, and a white tip reef shark's severed head was found on one of the most popular dive sites in Gili Trawangan.
The film featured mainly footage of dead sharks and rays, and one interview with Erwin, a respected local divemaster with whom I worked in Gili Trawangan. But I realised I had only scratched the surface of the issue and that there was much more to it than just a lot of evil fishermen killing sharks for money. Although it seemed hopeless, I had to do something, to make the world see what is happening here.
So, with Erwin's help we went back – riding motorbikes across Lombok in the freezing cold at 4 am to get to the market in time to meet the fishing boats. I was armed with only a camera and a microphone. This was grass roots filming, and we had to just make do with the best that we could find.
The goal was to interview fishermen and buyers, and we hoped, the Fisheries Officer. Unfortunately, it was clear he had been informed we were filming and he actively avoided us. We waited for several hours but eventually gave up.
Some fishermen would talk to us off camera, but refused to be filmed. We heard incredible stories: of there being so many sharks coming off the fishing boats in the past you could "walk on water" across their backs; of great whites being at the market, one with teeth as long as a thumb, and a tiger shark in its belly; that fishermen often went as far as Australia, at sea for sometimes four weeks at a time, in their search for the increasingly elusive shark.
I wondered what it was at like for these men, at sea away from their families, underfed and working through day and night in dirty unpleasant conditions, sneaking through the Australian Fishing Zone with an illegal catch, and on boats that were often prone to engine problems. Sometimes these boats just don't come back. In my first world estimation, there seems very little reward for the danger, harsh lifestyle and risk of getting caught. But clearly, to fishermen, there is no other option.
The third time I returned to the market, we stayed in the small village of Tanjung Luar itself. I expected that conditions would be "basic" at best. What we experienced was closer to "squalid" or "impoverished".
We stayed in a small bamboo hut on stilts, with a single thin mattress, a small fan, and the perennial tiny TV with rabbit ears. There is no running water for most people in Tanjung Luar – women pull water from a well every day. We had bucket showers and a squat toilet, and we were in probably one of the fanciest places in town!
We were followed through the village like the pied piper by a gaggle of laughing children, all jostling to have their picture taken, curiosity overcoming their apprehensiveness. Local people cooked snacks in the streets, and we were greeted everywhere we went by cheerful cries of Halo!
The ramshackle homes look like something out of a movie set, made from random pieces of driftwood, rattan sheets and concrete blocks, warped and leaning in every different direction. There are goats and chickens everywhere. The call of the mosque. Motorbikes and boat engines firing in the distance. It is a constant cacophony!
The scent of the market - a mixture of fish, blood, guts and rotting flesh - can only be described as the smell of death. It gets into your clothes, skin and hair. It lingers on your palate and makes it hard not to feel queasy. Over a year after the last visit, my camera bag still stinks of it.
It can be smelled throughout the village, even far from the cutting room floor in the market, mixing with the saccharine smell of rendang and frying fish. The citizens appear oblivious to the stench. What seems offensive to me is perhaps the smell of home to these people.
Over the three visits to the market, people have come to recognise me (a white woman sticks in people's memories in a place like this!) and slowly I have come to understand them, a little. My Bahasa has improved over 5 years (though shamefully I'm still not fluent), I have many Muslim friends who are from Lombok, and I now realize that although many people may despise fishermen for taking the beautiful fish from the reefs, and for killing sharks and rays, these are just ordinary people, who have no other option.
These are people whose life is predetermined from the day they are born. They will most likely do the same jobs for their entire lives. They have little or no education and no opportunity to better themselves or break the cycle. Their carefree childhood is short lived, and people age quickly here.
People treat me differently now than on that first visit. They are curious and want to talk and practice their English. When I try to explain the beauty I see in sharks and rays, and the tourism value of a live shark versus a one-time payment at the market, they seem to understand. But in practical terms it doesn't change anything. These people will not see any financial gain from the promotion of shark and ray tourism.
It is clear that an essential part of the solution is finding alternative income for fishermen. As long as they are stuck in the cycle of poor education and debt, they will continue to pursue fast money from shark fins. If we continue to blame local people, who in reality are also victims, no lasting solution can be found.
Some conservation organisations have begun to take a more proactive approach. The Dorsal Effect provides alternative employment to fishermen on snorkel tour boats, giving them a more stable income. Bali Sharks rescues live juvenile sharks caught as by-catch by Bali fishermen, and releases them within the Marine Protected Area of the Gili Islands, near Lombok.
The truly sad thing is that the people of Tanjung Luar do not understand the long-term impact shark fishing will ultimately have on their own livelihood. They do not realise they may be destroying the very thing that they depend on – their own fisheries. Without fishing these people have nothing. No income, no food, nowhere to live.
Hopefully, the Indonesian government will realise the futility of laws that are not enforced and perhaps be inspired to make a positive change in the protection of endangered species, as part of their war on corruption.
This film aims to make the world aware of this horrifying, tragic place. We must find ways to protect sharks and rays, to maintain the balance in our ocean environment, and preserve this incredible and beautiful resource for future generations to come.