At Tasikagung Harbor in Rembang District, Central Java, traders gather each day to buy sharks and rays for resale. Among them is Cici Widyastuti, who says she can collect at least one pickup truck's worth of these creatures every day. Her haul includes threatened species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and therefore subject to Indonesian trade controls. From her warehouse at the end of the harbor, Cici sells the fish on to various places. All of this happens without any scrutiny from officials.
The trade of shark and ray products in Indonesia is a lucrative business, estimated to be worth trillions of rupiah annually. The trade is complex, with many actors. It starts with fishermen who sell their catches to small-scale collectors like Cici Widyastuti. These individuals then sell fresh or frozen fish, or parts such as shark fins, to larger-scale traders who sell them on to exporters. With so many parties involved, and because shark fin traders use various methods to evade regulations, officials struggle to control or even count what is being sold.
Regulation 61/2018 of the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, which requires business actors to have permits called SIPJI and SAJI to sell and transport sharks and rays is intended to ensure the traceability of the species being traded. Applicants for these permits must therefore include a list of fishing vessels, said Anhar Rusdi, head of the Serang Coastal and Marine Resources Management Workshop (LPSPL).
But given the huge size of Indonesia’s fishing fleet, many unregistered vessels catch sharks or rays. In these cases, said Anhar, it is certain that the species caught are not reported and so must enter the illegal market, because they do not have required permits. Kadromi, a fishing boat owner from Rembang, confirms this. His eight boats routinely catch 1-2 tons of sharks or rays per trip. "But not all of them are reported in the e-logbook," he said.
Okta Tejo Darmono, a researcher at the Fisheries Resource Center Indonesia (FRCI), believes that the unreported catch of sharks and rays is even greater than what is reported. Increased supervision would reduce this, he said.
"Officials must check the accuracy of the amount of catch reported in the e-logbook, whether it matches the actual data or not," Tejo explained.
But at all the ports Mongabay visited, not a single supervisor was found monitoring or collecting data on fish landing activities. Nobody was cross-checking the catch with the reported data. Instead, sharks and rays were immediately taken by buyers.
Tejo said it is difficult to ascertain the volumes of sharks, rays and their derivatives in both domestic and international markets as there are many illegal and unrecorded products circulating. Meanwhile, government data is also full of irregularities, reinforcing concerns about illegal exports of ray sharks and rays.
The 2017-2021 Fishery Product Export Document published by the by the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries in 2022 states, for example, that 492.3 tons of dried and otherwise preserved shark fins were exported in 2021. But according to data from the Fish Quarantine and Quality Assurance Center (BKIPM) the total export volume recorded was 40% higher, at 689.7 tons. Likewise, the Ministry’s document reports 4,032.3 tons of frozen shark exports, while the total in the BKIPM data was 4,785 tons.
As well as uncertainty about the quantities of sharks and rays traded, there are also concerns that species that should be regulated are being traded illicitly. In a 2022 report, the Germany-based non-profit organization TRAFFIC said: “The CITES’ technical committee has raised concerns that trade data reported by Parties does not match expert expectations and that international trade in CITES-listed sharks may be going undetected and unreported.”
The report said that “Indonesia provides a clear example of potential trade of shark catch going undetected”. According to Traffic, this is especially likely when fins have been cut from protected species, such as the CITES-listed silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), at sea and mixed with fins of non-protected species.
Sarmintohadi, the Coordinator of Utilization of Fish Areas and Species at the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, acknowledges that although Indonesia has laws intended to suppress illegal trade, shark-trafficking remains rampant.
"Yes, we still have a lot of homework," he said. He believes that the transfer of authority over management of protected fish species to his ministry from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, in 2020, is improving the situation.
Sarminto said one problem is that not all holders of a Fish Type Utilization Permit (SIPJI) have ships, so they must establish partnerships with fishermen or ship owners. But some shark fishing vessels or fishermen have not been registered, because the shark fishing vessel registration provisions were only implemented in 2022.
More challenges arise, according to Okta Tejo Darmono, a researcher from FRCI, because few actors in the supply chain have the relevant permits. Moreover, there is a national catch quota system that is divided among Indonesia’s province before being further divided among businesses there.
"The number of quotas in each province and those obtained by business actors is not the same," he explained. The problem is that not all collectors or quota-holding business actors have goods to sell. At the same time, there are business actors who have goods, but do not have a license or quota.
Sarminto says lawbreakers—who use various methods to evade regulations—often play a game of cat-and-mouse with the Indonesian authorities. This includes illegally cutting the fins from sharks at sea and smuggling them ashore, failing to report catches, and mixing products from protected and non-protected species to take advantage of officials' weakness in identifying species.
"If it's like this, the officers will be troubled too. It is impossible for all products sent to be checked one by one, because our human resources are very limited. And it will definitely take time," he explained.
Registration of ships and fishermen is therefore very important to ensure product legality, he said.
One common practice is to use an ‘undername’ and falsely present fins as belonging to a company that possesses SIPJI and SAJI permits. Perpetrators called this 'borrowing the flag'. The head of the Denpasar Coastal and Marine Resources Management Center (BPSPL) for the East Java Region, Suwardi Purboyo, said this practice is a natural consequence of limited capacities, as “some of the actors at the lower level are not very good at technology."
This is one of these practices used by PT Jaya Dina Buana, whose office is in the Osowilangun warehousing complex in Surabaya, East Java. Employees said the company uses a large network of undername companies to run its business. When Mongabay Indonesia posed as a shark fin buyer, this company also offered its assistance to help with shipping, including taking care of documents from the Quarantine Center.
"The fee is easy, it can be arranged later," explained an employee called Hendrik. The company claims to have 'insiders' who are used to 'playing' in the shark fin trade. It doesn't even need to mix protected and non-protected fins to trick officers. "They are packed according to their type, no need to mix them,” said Hendrik. “We have people at the Quarantine Center who usually help.”
Another way traffickers escape detection is by using ‘forwarder’ services provided by companies that ship products abroad. Ardiyansah, who buys stingray skin to make handicrafts in Rembang District, Central Java, sends 200-300 pieces of stingray skin to China using a forwarder service almost once a month. This practice further complicates efforts to monitor the trade.
M. Mukhlis Kamal, a shark and ray researcher from Institut Pertanian Bogor University, said that Indonesia's vast territory enables illegal shark trade. The situation is exacerbated by the inadequate number of supervisory personnel. "Some of them may also be corrupt," he added.
Lamongan Marine and Fisheries Resources Supervisory staff, Susanto dismissed accusations of weak supervision. According to him, four personnel carry out routine and incidental inspections. Routine supervision, he said, is done in the warehouses of license holders. "This is done to check stock conditions and also the traceability of goods," he said.
But these inspections are not without warning. Before they take place, the person concerned receives a letter about the planned inspection. "Meanwhile, incidental checks are only carried out when there are reports from the public," he explained.
In practice, as observed in several ports Mongabay Indonesia visited, sharks and rays are freely sold, even by traders without SIPJI or SAJI permits, or a letter of recommendation for lookalike species.
Mukhlis urges the government, especially the Directorate General of Marine and Fisheries Resources Surveillance under the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, to improve supervision. He also said the government should increase protection for sharks and rays, as only ten of Indonesia’s more than 200 species have received protected status.
"Don't be misled thinking there are still many ray sharks,” he said. “It turns out there are some that are already endangered.” Mukhlis points out that sharks are big business. With prices reaching millions of rupiah per kilo, the total value is estimated to reach trillions of rupiah annually. "And if we are not serious,” he said, “they will eventually become extinct too.”
A. Asnawi produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by Mongabay Indonesia on 15 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: A hammerhead shark slaughtered for its fins at Brondong Port in East Java. Credit: A. Asnawi for Mongabay Indonesia.