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Newest ‘Walking’ Shark Heralds Brighter Future for Indonesia’s Sharks and Rays

Mark Erdmann was involved in the exciting discovery of a new species of “walking” shark, which was announced this week. Today on Human Nature, he discusses how this species fits into Indonesia’s shifting attitude toward shark conservation.
 
If you asked me a year ago about the long-term future of shark populations in Indonesia, I probably would have responded: “Bleak.”
 
For nearly three decades, Indonesia has led the world in the export of dried shark fins and other products from elasmobranchs (sharks, fins and skates). The country averages over 100,000 tons of sharks and rays landed each year — 10–13% of the global catch! In the 21 years I’ve been working in Indonesia, I’ve seen many of my favorite reefs stripped of their shark populations. Indeed, it has become quite rare to see sharks on most dives in Indonesia.
 
But what an amazing difference a year can make! In that time, I have seen Indonesia take incredible steps to protect these fascinating species that help keep our oceans healthy — even if we don’t yet know of their existence. This week’s announcement of the new species of “walking” shark can truly be said to herald a promising future for Indonesia’s sharks and rays.
 
Why the sudden about-face from exploitation to conservation and sustainable use of elasmobranchs? Without question, the global movement toward shark and ray conservation (including recent CITES listings) has had an impact, but there are other encouraging forces at play as well.
 
Increasing Understanding of Sharks’ Importance for People
 
As Indonesia’s economy has matured, the past decade has seen a tremendous increase in the number of Indonesians taking up scuba diving. This has dramatically increased awareness of the declines in shark and ray populations while simultaneously creating a large “fan base” for charismatic species like manta rays and whale sharks.
 
Within the government, there is a growing awareness of the important ecological role that sharks play in maintaining healthy fish stocks, as well as the incredible economic potential of shark and manta-focused marine tourism. A recent study of global manta tourism conducted by the NGOs WildAid, Shark Savers and Manta Trust showed that Indonesia ranks second globally as a manta tourism destination, with an estimated direct economic benefit of over US$ 15 million to the Indonesian economy annually.
 
As Agus Dermawan, the director of the Ministry’s Marine Conservation Directorate, notes: “We now know, for instance, that a living manta ray is worth up to US$ 1.9 million to our economy over the course of its lifetime, compared to a value of only $40–200 for its meat and gill rakers. We believe there is still tremendous untapped potential to expand shark and ray tourism in Indonesia, but we need to act now to manage and recover these populations.”
 
Indonesia is also one of the world’s biggest users of social media. Celebrity conservationists like Riyanni Djangkaru (a former news anchor and current editor of Divemag Indonesia) are daily raising elasmobranch conservation issues through Facebook and the popular “#savesharks” Twitter hashtag.
 
Scientific Discoveries
 
The country’s changing view toward sharks and rays is also being influenced by the steady stream of exciting scientific discoveries emanating from the world’s largest archipelagic nation, which seems to be bringing new shark and ray species to light every year.
 
For instance, the recent discovery of a new species of epaulette or “walking” shark (Hemiscyllium halmahera) on the reefs of the remote eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera, has the local government and emerging dive tourism industry excited to promote its newly-named endemic species.
 
 
The shark, which has the endearing quality of using its fins to “walk” across the ocean floor, calls attention to the fact that the vast majority of Indonesia’s elasmobranchs are harmless to humans and lead fascinating but little-known lives beneath the sea. Indeed, CI has chosen the Raja Ampat endemic species of walking shark, locally known as kalabia, as the mascot for its flagship marine conservation education program there. With a clever strategy, the new walking shark could similarly serve as a local ambassador for marine conservation in Halmahera!
 
At the other end of the size spectrum, my colleague Fahmi, Indonesia’s foremost shark expert, has now confirmed the first known record of a basking shark in Indonesian waters — indicating this normally cold-water species may be using Indonesia’s abundant deepwater channels to move across the equator between the temperate waters where it feeds. In a bid to further increase public awareness and appreciation of the country’s tremendous national heritage, Fahmi and his colleague Dharmadi at the Ministry of Fisheries will also soon be publishing an identification guide to the nearly 220 different species of sharks and rays known from Indonesian waters.
 
Milestones for Shark Protection
 
In the past year, Indonesia has made impressive commitments to protect its sharks. In February, the Raja Ampat government announced a law creating the first shark and ray sanctuary in the Coral Triangle, a move which just this past week inspired the West Manggarai government (where world-famous Komodo National Park is located) to follow suit with their own elasmobranch sanctuary. Now the Bali government is also considering creating a sanctuary.
 
The story at the national level is similarly promising. In March of this year, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries hosted the first national symposium on shark and ray conservation. There, the minister himself publicly announced that Indonesia would move quickly to create regulations to protect those species whose populations are threatened, including those recently listed on CITES Appendix II (including reef and oceanic manta rays, oceanic whitetip sharks and hammerheads.)
 
Since that time, a dedicated coalition of Indonesian scientists and government officials, supported by NGOs including CI, the Wildlife Conservation Society, WildAid, Manta Trust, The Nature Conservancy and WWF have worked hard to gather the scientific evidence to support these regulations and design the public consultation process. In June, the first of these regulations granting full protected species status to whale sharks was signed by the minister, and the team led by the ministry and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences is now working feverishly to finalize further regulations focused on manta rays, three species of hammerhead sharks and oceanic whitetip sharks.
 
With all of these promising new developments, my assessment on the future of Indonesian sharks and rays has done an about-face from bleak to increasingly bright. I look forward to sharing more positive news on this initiative in the near future. Until then, as our finned friends in Halmahera would say, “Keep walking.”
 
Mark Erdmann is CI’s senior advisor to the Indonesian Marine Program and regional coordinator for the Bird’s Head Seascape Program.