Two years ago, we proudly blogged that the Raja Ampat government in the Indonesian province of West Papua had taken the bold step of passing a law protecting all species of sharks and rays in its waters (the first such law in Southeast Asia!) in recognition of the tremendous ecological and economic benefits to both fisheries and tourism of healthy elasmobranch populations.
This law rapidly gained national traction, and a year later I was delighted to congratulate the Indonesian government on its move to create the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary.
At the time, the global response to these announcements was largely positive, though there were a number of skeptics who openly wondered if the Indonesian government would actually take enforcement of these laws seriously. So, as these two laws celebrate their first and second year anniversaries, it seems like a good time to ask: How effective have they been at deterring poachers and protecting these valuable species?
Having just come off a two-week expedition in Raja Ampat, I can say that unquestionably Raja’s sharks and mantas are looking healthier than I’ve ever seen them in 14 years of diving there. Our team regularly encountered feeding groups of 10–30 mantas, photographed a number of pregnant females, tagged several juvenile mantas in the Wayag nursery lagoon and watched with delight as a monthly shark feeding — conducted by our partner Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre to monitor population size — rapidly attracted nearly 40 blacktip reef sharks to the shallow waters under their jetty.
But what about enforcement? It’s an unfortunate reality that as Raja Ampat’s fish populations rebound, the region’s waters are increasingly targeted by outside poachers, which expands the need for adequate enforcement. Fortunately, I’m very pleased to note that all levels of government — from the local Raja Ampat government up to the president of Indonesia himself — are taking this marine enforcement very seriously in defense of their coastal communities’ livelihoods.
Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s “maritime axis” vision for sustainable economic development in the world’s largest archipelago, he has instructed the Indonesian Navy and Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries to aggressively pursue a policy of publicly sinking any large illegal fishing vessels caught in Indonesian waters as a warning to others. In the waning months of 2014, the navy burned and sank six foreign illegal fishing vessels.
This morning, the Raja Ampat police followed suit and sank a large Vietnamese ship that was captured on January 19th with over two tons of drying shark fins, strips of flesh from at least five manta rays and nearly 50 hawksbill sea turtles in its hold.
Though it appears much of this grisly cargo was captured outside of Raja Ampat, the ship was spotted deploying a massive drift gillnet in southern Raja Ampat by community members. They immediately reported it to the police, who took the ship into custody and, in coordination with the Ministry of Fisheries, decided to sink the ship publicly. In this case, the decision was made not to burn the ship first, but rather to sink it in a strategic location to create a new dive site attraction — a fitting end for the poaching vessel.
Last week, while preparations for sinking this vessel were underway, two more illegal boats were caught in northern Raja Ampat. The two ships from the island of Sulawesi were caught by local community rangers and water police while in the act of detonating homemade explosives (“fish bombs”) on the reefs of Sayang Island in the Wayag marine park.
All 21 crew members were immediately arrested, and police found over 170 fish bombs on board, plus the materials needed to make hundreds more. The police have publicly committed to prosecute these fishers to the fullest extent of the law, and plans are being made to sink these two ships as well.
At the national level, the news is similarly heartening. The new minister of marine affairs and fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has been leading the charge to shut down the illegal export of manta ray gill rakers to China. With the strong technical support of our partner the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Marine Wildlife Crimes Unit, the ministry and national police successfully conducted sting operations between August and November 2014 that resulted in the arrests of five of the top manta traders in Indonesia and the November confiscation of a large shipment of 227 pounds [103 kilograms] of dried manta gill rakers in Bali. And just last week, the ministry announced the successful first prosecution of one of the arrested traders, who received a 16 month prison sentence!
The government’s strong stance seems to be having a direct impact on the illegal trade. WCS reports that preliminary data from its monitoring efforts at known manta-hunting sites reveal that fishers are increasingly unable to sell manta parts, presumably as a result of the crackdown.
Overall, the news is definitely increasingly positive for Indonesia’s long-suffering sharks and rays. This progress highlights just how quickly a seemingly intractable environmental problem can be addressed with concerted political will and the support of passionately committed conservation organizations.
Just two short years ago, it was hard to imagine that the world’s largest shark and ray fishing nation could switch gears so rapidly and become a true “hope spot” for elasmobranchs. If that doesn’t prove that we can make a difference, I don’t know what will.
Mark Erdmann is CI’s vice president for Asia-Pacific Marine Programs, now based in Auckland after 23 years in Indonesia.