Off the northwestern tip of West Papua, Indonesia is a remote chain of stunning islands surrounded by the world’s richest coral reefs. The islands are called Raja Ampat (“the four kings”), and are part of the Bird’s Head Seascape; they’re also my ancestral home. Both as a CI employee and as a member of Raja Ampat’s indigenous council known as the Adat, I work for the conservation of Raja Ampat’s rich marine resources for my community.
Last week, that work was threatened by 33 illegal poachers who entered Raja Ampat in search of sharks, rays and other marine species that they had long since fished out in their own waters. This is the story of how Raja Ampat fought back.
I was conducting a community outreach event on a small island in the middle of the Raja Ampat, when I got the call — an urgent SOS message from my colleagues in the Kawe Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the most remote corner of Raja Ampat. The MPA was under attack!
The Kawe MPA is known as “the crown jewel” of the Raja Ampat archipelago. This uninhabited area is owned by the Kawe tribe; it is a unique and world-renowned site that features the stunning Wayag karst islands, regionally significant green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting beaches, and important shark and ray birthing grounds.
Despite its global importance, the area was previously a hotbed of illegal activities such as dynamite fishing and shark finning from outside fishermen. However, in 2006 the local Kawe tribal leaders decided enough was enough. With support from CI, they declared a 155,000-hectare (383,000-acre) MPA in a bottom-up process that included a declaration both by the Papuan traditional Adat council as well as the Raja Ampat government. This was eventually followed by a national declaration affording it the highest level of protection for any MPA in Papua.
The Kawe communities took it one step further, declaring over 97.5 percent of the MPA as a “no-take zone” through a traditional Papuan sasi declaration, meaning that no fishing of any kind is allowed within this area. With this declaration they made the Kawe MPA into the single largest no-take zone in all of the Coral Triangle, a region stretching from Indonesia to the Philippines and the Solomon Islands. In addition, in 2011 the area was additionally protected under the Raja Ampat shark sanctuary decree, which forbids any shark and ray fishing anywhere in Raja Ampat.
Most importantly, through the dedicated work and mentorship from my colleagues Kris Thebu, Henki Dimalou and Meity Mongdong, the Kawe MPA is 100 percent managed by well-trained and highly capable local villagers from the Kawe tribe. For six years, the communities have carefully guarded this area, working with local police to regularly run joint patrols of the whole area. And they were starting to see results. Previously bombed reefs were recovering with new coral growth, and my friends from the Kawe MPA field station boasted about the abundance of baby sharks swimming in front of their dock.
But now, six years later, we were receiving news that seven fishing vessels from outside Raja Ampat — with fake fishing licenses issued from a village chief from another province — were inside the MPA, illegally fishing for sharks at a dangerous rate.
My first reaction was rage. The people of the Kawe tribe had set aside this area for the benefit of their children. They guard it with passion because it is theirs, and now in the blink of an eye, poachers were trying to steal it from them. I wanted to rush to Kawe and capture them myself!
However, I knew that was not my role. Instead, I immediately left for Raja Ampat’s capital Waisai to get the Kawe communities the additional support they would need. There, my colleague Alberth Nebore and I worked with the chief of the Raja Ampat water police, as he planned out the patrol strategy and enlisted two members of the navy for the effort.
The team decided to leave at sunrise. Unfortunately in our eagerness to depart, we made the long journey on hungry stomachs, having only packed fried bananas and one flask of tea. However, we passed the time quickly with animated discussions on how we should best approach the poachers.
We arrived at the Kawe community patrol post at 9 a.m., where we were quickly updated on the situation by the community before heading out to where the poachers had last been seen. The patrol team included six community members, a Raja Ampat police officer and two navy officers who carried firearms for the group’s protection. Myself and a few other CI staff joined the team to help document the process.
The patrol team quickly found the seven fishing vessels, some still with long-lines targeting sharks. The boats immediately tried to flee and the fishermen acted extremely aggressively towards us. With only one small speedboat, it was incredibly difficult to chase down and secure all seven boats, but eventually the navy officers managed to gain control of them all without resorting to violence.
While the police and navy officers worked to check the ships’ documentation, the community patrol members recorded the catch and gear on board each vessel. As we boarded the first ship we were confronted with the sight of five dying sharks struggling on deck. It was difficult to contain our emotions as deep heartbreak and anger welled up in each of us as we chronicled the destruction that these fishermen had been able to do in three short days. We found freshly caught sharks and shark fins, manta ray carcasses and sea cucumbers, along with long-lines and illegal compressors. In total the estimated value of the catch and gear was over 1.5 billion rupiah (about US$ 160,000).
The patrol team confiscated all of the ships’ documents, catch and fishing gear, but unfortunately because it was getting late and we only had one small speedboat (now weighed down with the confiscated catch and gear), the navy decided that they would be unable to keep control of all seven boats traveling at night back to Waisai. They made an official arrest and ordered the fishermen to report for processing in Waisai in the morning. Unfortunately, they chose to run instead.
There is one positive outcome of this sad incident: The communities, police and navy have committed to maintaining a heightened patrol presence in the Kawe MPA to prevent this from happening again.
However, the escape of the fishermen was a bitter disappointment for the communities, who feel like they have been deprived of full justice, despite such a successful apprehension of the fishermen. However, the Raja Ampat government does plan to pursue them — and we are working around the clock to make sure that is exactly what happens.
Bram Goram is the outreach and engagement coordinator for the Bird’s Head Seascape. Thanks to Laure Katz for her help with English translation.