By turning fishermen into stewards of the ocean, Project Hiu is helping communities in Lombok, Indonesia create a more sustainable future for their fisheries.
"Humans are the greatest threat to sharks, but humans are also the answer." - Project Hiu
These deceptively simple words reveal a cultural, environmental, and economic shift occurring on the island of Lombok, Indonesia.
Less visited than its raucous neighbor, Bali, Lombok is a tropical oasis home to swathes of pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and shadowed by the towering presence of the volcanic Mount Rinjani. Tourists typically make the journey there by boat, enticed by the clean lines of offshore reef breaks and unparalleled diving visibility.
Fishing is a way of life in Lombok. Its inhabitants have long lived in harmony with the ocean, with knowledge passed down through generations, a guaranteed income in a place far removed from the rest of the world.
Until recent years, sharks averaged less than two percent of the catch produced by fisheries in Indonesia. But at the beginning of the 21st century, Indonesia became the world’s leading shark fishery1, with operations in Lombok accounting for 10% of total shark catch in Indonesia.
The annual global shark fin trade adds up to about $540 million USD, with an estimated 73 million sharks killed for their fins each year.2 While the meat is turned into cheap seafood, the skin is turned into bags and wallets, while the bones can be powdered and turned into a traditional Chinese medicine. The most valued product is the fin—another item believed to have (unproven) medicinal properties, oftentimes in the form of shark fin soup.
Driven by the high demand in Asian markets, Indonesia's diversity of marine megafauna made it a natural candidate to be one of the world’s largest exporters of shark fins. Thanks to a robust population of pelagic predators like mako, hammerhead, blue, silky and thresher sharks3, the country naturally pivoted towards the harvest of apex marine animals. Up to 80% of the species in the Indonesian shark fin trade have a conservation status of near-threatened, vulnerable, or endangered.4
However, a significant gap exists between the income local fishermen derive and the profits generated from the sale of exported shark products. A shark that a fisherman sells for $50 at an Indonesian market may often be marked up to nearly $1000 for 500g once it reaches metropolises like Hong Kong.
With most species taking anywhere from 7-20 years to reach maturity and producing relatively few offspring,5 it takes these apex predators a long time to recover from population decimation. As the populations of mature sharks plummet due to the industry, it’s common for juveniles to be taken in large quantities, ultimately contributing to a gradual fisheries collapse phenomenon as the abundance and size of a marine species declines over time, leading each generation to accept a degraded state of the oceans as the new normal.
The fishermen of Lombok aren’t the only ones whose lives have been shaped by the ocean. Madison Stewart spent her formative years living at sea, off the coast of her native Australia. Stewart began exploring the ocean at an early age, cultivating a lifelong love and appreciation for marine fauna as she states in the Project Hiu origin story.
Stewart first visited the fishing village of Tanjung Luar on Lombok in 2017 as during the filming of a marine conservation documentary aimed at highlighting the issues with the Indonesian shark trade.6 Despite a lifetime underwater, Stewart encountered marine biodiversity like she’d never seen before in Lombok—but each new species she discovered was on the floor of one of the country’s largest seafood markets, dead.
Spotting Indonesian fishing boats, jukungs, in Australian waters isn’t an uncommon experience—the vessels would come to fish, often illegally, because they’d depleted the stocks of their own fisheries.
After the release of the film, she returned to Lombok with a new agenda, seeking out the fishermen who were killing sharks. Stewart ended up chatting with the first captain that would talk to her, a fisherman from nearby Maringkik Island, and offered him $100 a day to charter his boat to see the nearby sights.7
Stewart realized that the keys to saving the sharks were the fishermen themselves—the men weren’t maliciously seeking out sharks, they needed them to survive. High demand for fins caused overfishing, and the men’s catches were diminishing, making it even harder to earn a living.
As she got to know them, Stewart began to understand that the fishermen needed a more stable and sustainable income, free from the demands of foreign markets and the dangers of weeks at sea. All Stewart had to do was convince the fishermen that their marine environments were more valuable alive than dead.
Recent research has shown that 772,171 shark tourists visited Indonesia in 2017 alone, and contributed an estimated 22 million USD to the Indonesian economy to see sharks, alive.8
If shark populations continue to decline due to insufficient conservation actions, the tourism industry could suffer economic losses from shark and ray tourism of more than USD 121 million per annum by 20279, also leading to detrimental impacts on species, marine ecosystems, fisheries and people.
By hiring out the shark fishing boat during her second visit, Stewart unwittingly stumbled across her solution. If she could increase the demand for hiring out boats for tourism purposes, she had a way to create a new role for fishermen whilst protecting the depleted local shark populations, without threatening their livelihoods. Stewart then created Project Hiu to further formalize her intentions. Named after the Bahasa Indonesian word for shark, Project Hiu aims to provide alternative income to fishermen in one of the largest shark fisheries in Indonesia and the world.
Initially, the shark fishing boats could be booked out for week-long tours, hiring the boat’s Indonesian crew to take visitors to coral reefs and dive sites in the area. The tours also offered an educational component, taking passengers to observe shark nurseries and fishing communities on Maringkik Island, as well as a critical opportunity to humanize the local fishermen, and the hardships they’ve faced in order to make a living from the sea.
These days, Stewart estimates that each week-long trip keeps two fishing vessels out of the water for a month, equating to around 60 sharks that could have been caught. She’s also recently opened a storefront in Kuta, Lombok, where visitors can pick up merch, sign up for a day trip, or learn more about Project Hiu’s operations.
Ironically, the fleet of fishing boats recently played a critical role in the first tiger shark tagging program in Indonesian waters, the data from which will help policymakers make more informed decisions about the country’s shark fisheries.10
A quick glance at the numbers shows that the live shark industry is also more sustainable than the dead one, financially. Stewart’s team found that it costs about $28,000 USD to decommission a fishing boat and employ it and its five crew in tourism for one year.11 Based on data of trip catch averages, a year of a boat decommissioned saves an average of 470 sharks.12 With the tourism value of one shark in Indonesia estimated to be around $400 each, this means that one boat saves a number of sharks valued at $200,000 AUD a year to the tourism economy of Indonesia.13 For comparison, the value of a dead shark is about $280, 1.45 times less than shark tourism.14
When there’s a good catch of highly-valued sharks, Stewart admits that shark fishing can be more lucrative. However, for local fishermen, there was more than their income at stake. Taking the boat out for an extended fishing trip meant an increased chance of life-threatening accidents. By sticking to the calmer reefs where tourists can spot marine life, it offers a safer livelihood with less variables.
"I thought I knew what I was fighting for. But I knew nothing, until I knew them. And If I could show the world anything, it’s that the men killing sharks are not the enemy. They are the answer, and they are going to change the world."
Not only has Project Hiu transformed the purpose of many of the fishing vessels in the area, it’s also closely integrated with the needs and development of the communities that call Lombok home.
From waste management and recycling initiatives to boat refurbishing, strengthening educational infrastructure, and creating jobs for the female population, life on Lombok for Stewart is a delicate balance of acknowledging cultural tradition while embarking on initiatives to empower local communities on and off the water.
Project Hiu is offering local communities in Lombok a brighter future. By working with Indonesian fishing communities to identify and address their needs rather than prescribing them, Project Hiu is demonstrating that it’s possible to prioritize both economic prosperity and environmental stewardship while prioritizing and preserving Sasak traditions.
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