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Java, Indonesia

Uncovering Indonesia's Illegal Shark Trade — Part 1: Tracing Shark Fins from Papua to Java and on to China

The Brondong fishing port in Lamongan District, East Java, was bustling on a Friday morning in late February 2023 as workers unloaded fish from the many boats that arrived that morning. The catch included hundreds of sharks and rays. Among them were vulnerable or critically endangered scalloped hammerheads, silky sharks, and various species of wedgefish and guitarfish.

Rizal, one of three fish buyers who had been there since dawn, was happy as he had secured the most goods, more than 10 tons of sharks and rays. His workers had already cut off the fins from some of the sharks. The fins interest Rizal most because he can sell them for between Rp 400,000 and Rp 12 million per kilogram, depending on their size. By contrast, shark meat sells for only Rp 14,000 per kilogram. Rizal said buyers come to his house from Surabaya, Pati, Tegal, and Jakarta to buy 50-100 kilograms of fins at a time.

Brondong is just one of many Indonesian ports where sharks and rays are landed. Reporting from January to April 2023 found that the practice was rampant in all ports on the north coast of Java, such as Tasikagung Beach fishing port in Rembang District, Bajomulyo fishing port in Pati District and Tegalsari fishing port in Tegal City.

Every day, hundreds of sharks and rays are landed at each of these ports. Most are protected species or are subject to strict regulations. But there are no officials present to monitor this trade. It often takes place illegally, with consequences for shark populations and, ultimately, the health of entire marine ecosystems.

Piles of sharks and rays at Tasikagung Harbor, Rembang Regency, Java, Indonesia. Photo: A. Asnawi / Mongabay Indonesia
Piles of sharks and rays at Tasikagung Harbor, Rembang Regency, Java, Indonesia / Credit: A. Asnawi for Mongabay Indonesia.

Rules to follow

The shark fin trade is a lucrative and controversial industry driven by high demand, particularly in China. Indonesia controls the capture and use of sharks and rays through Regulation 61/2018 of the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries. This regulates the use of fish species that are fully or partially protected under national law, or are listed in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which Indonesia ratified in 1978. The regulation also covers species that look like the protected or CITES-listed species, and for which traders must obtain a recommendation letter.

Fully protected species include whale sharks, sawfish, manta rays and four types of freshwater rays. It is illegal to catch, keep or trade them. Other CITES-listed shark species subject to Indonesian trade controls include hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna zygaena, Sphyrna lewini, Sphyrna mokarran), thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus, Alopias superciliosus, Alopias vulpinus), whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus), silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) and mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus, Isurus paucus).

Rays covered by the Regulation because they are CITES-listed include mobula rays (Mobula species), wedgefish (Rhynchobatus palpebratus and Rhynchabatus springeri) and guitarfish (Rhina ancylostoma, Glaucostegus typus and Glaucostegus thouin).

Any business that wants to export these species or sell them domestically must have a Fish Type Utilization Permit (SIPJI) and a Fish Type Transport Permit (SAJI). Traders must also have been allocated a quota covering the amount they can export. But as Mongabay Indonesia has found, it is easy for traders to circumvent the regulation and evade detection.

A shark whose fins have been cut off and sold. Credit: A. Asnawi / Mongabay Indonesia
A shark whose fins have been cut off and sold / Credit: A. Asnawi for Mongabay Indonesia.

Fin traders

In December 2022, an Indonesian-flagged container ship owned by PT SPIL docked at Tanjung Perak Port in Surabaya, East Java, having departed from Merauke Port in Papua. Its cargo included 589 kilograms of shark fins. According to the Fish Quarantine and Health Center (BKIPM) document, the fins were sent to Hendrik Setiyoko, a resident of Purwodadi Hamlet, Ngancar Sub-district, Kediri Regency, East Java. But they did not belong to him.

"They belonged to my boss," said Hendrik, an employee of PT Jaya Dina Buana (JDB), a fish processing company in the Osowilangun Permai warehousing complex in Surabaya. He admitted that the company had deliberately used his name to receive the shipment. "Maybe because I have experience," he explained, adding that he had previously worked at another company that also traded in shark fins.

PT JDB is based in Bandung District, West Java and was only established in October 2022, according to the company profile document obtained from the Directorate of Legal and General Administration of the Indonesian Ministry of Law and Human Rights. The document states that the managing director is Gamma Wilasa; Tutantra Tanu is a director and Daweiri Tanu is a commissioner. When Mongabay Indonesia contacted the company by telephone, the person who answered declined to comment and ended the call.

Despite being so new, the company already has a strong network of shark fin buyers that export to countries including China, Singapore, and Vietnam. “Everything is exported," said Hendrik. He said shipments the company receives from Papua can reach two tons, or 3,500 fins. They arrive by ship, or sometimes by plane, and are usually taken directly to the company’s warehouse in Surabaya.

Illegal trade

In March 2023, Mongabay Indonesia visited the warehouse posing as a prospective buyer. Two workers were busy sorting sea cucumbers in the main room, where nearly 40 kilograms of shark fins were wrapped in plastic bags and ready for sale. Among them were fins of black sharks, stingrays, white or lanjaman sharks, and hammerhead sharks. The longer the fin, the higher the price. Those measuring 15 centimeters were Rp 500,000 to 700,000 per kilogram, while those that are 40 centimeters long were priced at Rp 2-2.4 million.

Ce Afe, who claimed to own the warehouse, said the fins were left over from previous sales. "Yesterday, we sent two tons to Jakarta. This is the rest," she said, and offered to sell them for Rp 67 million.

But such a sale would be illegal according to Suwardi Purboyo, Head of the Denpasar Coastal and Marine Resources Management Center (BPSPL) for the East Java region. He said that, as of March 2023, there were only 35 SIPJI holders in the region, 13 of which were also exporters. Neither Hendrik nor PT JDB were among SIPJI-SAJI holders.

"The name Hendrik or PT JDB is not in our data. There is no such name," Suwardi told Mongabay Indonesia at his office on March 24, 2023. He said this meant Hendrik and the company were trading shark fins illegally.

PT JDB is just one of several companies in Java that routinely receive shark supplies from Papua, according to BKIPM documents. However, the whereabouts of two of them are unclear. One called PT Nafish Rafa Bahari was recorded bringing in 100 kilograms of shark fins in April 2023. The other company, CV Mina Miranda Jaya received a shipment of 3.6 tons.

Mongabay Indonesia visited the company addresses listed in the documents but could find no trace of the businesses. Local residents had not heard of them either. A search for company documents on the website of the Director General of Legal and General Administration of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights also produced no results. The company names were not there.

A two-meter long, CITES-listed ray landed at Tasikagung Port, Rembang, Java, Indonesia. Credit: A. Asnawi / Mongabay Indonesia
A two-meter long, CITES-listed ray landed at Tasikagung Port, Rembang, Java, Indonesia / Credit: A. Asnawi for Mongabay Indonesia.

Sources and destinations

Indonesia's vast territorial waters are home to nearly half of the world’s 500 or so shark and ray species. These include 120 shark species and 101 rays. According to Muhammad Abdi Suhufan, Director of the nongovernmental organization Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW), one of the top areas for catching these fish now is the Arafura Sea, to the south of Papua. This is because other locations, such as the Java Sea, are running low.

"If it becomes the main supplier, I think it is natural because the Java Sea is getting more difficult. Fishermen will eventually shift their fishing zones to the eastern region," he explained. Research by DFW revealed that the Arafura Sea supplied an average of 18.6 tons of dried shark fins per year in 2018-2020. "That's only the reported data,” said Abdi. “I'm sure the unreported amount is bigger than that.”

Data from the Fish Quarantine and Quality Assurance Center (BKIPM) in Merauke, Papua also shows a high supply of sharks from Eastern Indonesia. On average, more than 177 tons of sharks were shipped from this single port each year between 2018 and 2022.

Many of the sharks and rays caught in Indonesian waters are sent to Surabaya, the country’s second largest city and a gateway to export markets including China, the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. "Most is exported," explained Suwardi of the BPSPL, adding that domestic sales are rare as the price is so high.

Indeed, most (58.8%) of the 852 SAJI permits that BPSPL Denpasar issued in 2021 were for export purposes. Overall, the total dead shark products traded in the East Java region that year included 2,582.3 tons of headless, finless frozen sharks, 365.8 tons of headless frozen sharks with fins and 157.3 tons of dried shark fins. The total economic value of the shark and ray trade in this region of Indonesia alone reached Rp105 billion that year.

High international demand drives both the legal and illegal trade in sharks and rays from Indonesian waters. According to the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Indonesia contributes 16.8% to the global shark market. But there are growing concerns that this is unsustainable.

M. Mukhlis Kamal, a shark and ray researcher from Institut Pertanian Bogor University, said the conservation of these species is very important to maintain the balance of marine ecosystems. He said that, as large carnivores, sharks regulate the food chain and control the balance of marine ecology by eating other species.

"If their population is reduced or they become extinct, the effects on ecological balance will be felt,” said Kamal. “The ecosystem can collapse.”

Read Part 2 here

A. Asnawi produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by Mongabay Indonesia on 11 July 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing. 

Banner image: Freshly landed sharks and rays at Brondong Harbor, Lamongan Regency, Java, Indonesia. Credit: A. Asnawi/ Mongabay Indonesia.