Raja Ampat launches Indonesia’s first shark sanctuary

© Gerry Allen

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Earlier this week, the regency government of West Papua’s Raja Ampat archipelago took the bold step of declaring its entire 46,000 square-kilometer (almost 18,000 square-mile) marine domain a shark sanctuary — Indonesia’s first. One of only a handful of such sanctuaries in existence globally, this latest news is further indication that the tide is turning for shark conservation.

With the EU adopting a total ban on shark finning back in November, and sale of fins now banned in several U.S. states, the global push for shark protection continues to gather momentum. I hope that Raja Ampat’s strong leadership will encourage others to follow suit. Indonesia remains the world’s largest supplier of shark fin products, with the trade primarily driven by China’s rapacious appetite for shark fin soup.

Located within the Bird’s Head Seascape, Raja Ampat’s reefs are some of the richest in the world. As apex predators, sharks are essential to the health of these reefs. But intense fishing of sharks perpetrated by outsiders has led to the depletion of Raja Ampat’s shark numbers over the past two decades.

With the creation of the Bird’s Head Seascape network of marine protected areas, and now a total ban on shark capture and sale, Raja’s sharks may again rule the reefs. Raja Ampat is emerging as a “bucket list” destination for recreational divers from around the world; healthier shark populations will only add to this appeal in the future.

Clear and focused action by a strong conservation community provided the catalyst for change in Raja Ampat. A coalition of concerned parties led by Misool Eco Resort and Shark Savers — with support from WildAid, Misool Baseftin Foundation and the Coral Reef Alliance — urged the Raja Ampat government to take measures. Recognising the value of their burgeoning tourism industry, the regency government sought the technical support of Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy to develop the legislation.

In the words of Conservation International-Indonesia Director Ketut Sarjana Putra, “This type of regional policy is a great example of local leaders building Indonesia’s blue economy through investing in responsible marine tourism — recognizing the links between a healthy marine ecosystem and healthy sustainable society. Hopefully this will prompt other tourism-dependent regions to develop similar actions throughout the Indonesian archipelago.”

We now know that heavy shark fishing cannot be sustained. Sharks reproduce slowly, and populations quickly devastated by targeted fishing can take decades to recover. Recent estimates suggest that up to 73 million sharks are killed annually — mostly for their fins, and often under extremely cruel circumstances.

We also have seen that sharks can be extremely valuable alive if left to thrive in areas attractive to tourists. A recent Maldives study showed the value of a single shark over its lifetime to be as much as US$ 30,000 in terms of economic return to the local tourism industry. In comparison, a shark killed for fins in Papua may fetch only a few dollars. And so Raja Ampat’s legislation of full shark protection makes sense economically, as well as scientifically.

The new regulation will also boost protection to all marine mammals, ornamental fish species and manta rays, making Raja Ampat’s marine life now the most protected in all of Indonesia.

Perhaps most importantly, Papuans have regained control of their natural resources and their traditional role as stewards of the sea. This blog post from last year demonstrated the strong affinity our Papuan colleagues have with the ocean. Today, the people of Raja Ampat have taken a bold leap forward, and can proudly consider themselves world leaders in marine conservation.

Matthew Fox is the former Conservation International-Indonesia seascapes management advisor.