A. Asnawi, Lamongan, Indonesia – The Brondong Fisheries Port in Indonesia's East Java province was busy on a Friday morning in February as workers worked as swiftly as possible to unload the catches. Among the landed crates of fish, there were sharks and rays that appeared to be different types.
Rizal, one of the many fish buyers who had stood by at the port since early morning, looked happy at the sight of that day's catches. He eventually collected the biggest volume among the group with some 10 tons of both sharks and rays. Rizal's fish handlers immediately got to work and cut off the sharks' fins.
Shark fins are the most valuable for Rizal. He could only get as much as 14,000 rupiah ($0.93) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of shark meat, but the fins could be sold for millions of rupiah per kilogram. The longer the fins, the higher the price. For those measuring 15 centimeters (6 inches), the price point is between 500,000-700,000 rupiah ($33-46) per kilogram, while those measuring 40 cm (16 in) are priced at 2 million-2.4 million rupiah ($132-$159).
Rizal said his buyers, who are from other cities in Java such as Surabaya, Pati, Tegal and Jakarta, would typically pay for 50-100 kg (110-220) of the fins.
Brondong is one of many Indonesian ports where sharks and rays are landed. A Mongabay-Indonesia investigation between January and April 2023 found that this practice is rampant in the ports along the northern coast of Java Island, known by its acronym Pantura, such as Tasikagung Fisheries Port, Bajomulyo Fisheries Port, and Tegalsari Fisheries Port.
Every day hundreds of sharks and rays are landed in each of those ports. Most of these marine vertebrates are either protected species by Indonesian law or under strict conservation regulations. But, the trade in sharks and rays is poorly monitored so that illegal practices are left unchecked, posing direct threats to the species population in the wild while degrading the health of the marine ecosystem at large.
The trade in sharks and rays in Indonesia is extensively regulated. Some species are fully protected, meaning it's illegal to catch and trade them, while many others are subject to national and international trade regulations. However, Mongabay-Indonesia's investigation found that traders could easily make leeway around the regulations that protect or control the sharks and rays.
In December 2022, an Indonesian-flagged container ship owned by PT Salam Pacific Indonesia Lines (SPIL) arrived at the Tanjung Perak Port in Surabaya, East Java province, from the Merauke Port in Papua. Its loads included 589 kg (1,299 lbs) of shark fins. Documents provided by the Fish Quarantine and Quality Control Agency (BKIPM) showed that the fins were to be delivered to Hendrik Setiyoko, a local in Purwodadi village of Kediri district in East Java. But it appeared that Hendrik was not the true buyer of those shark fins.
"They belong to my boss," said Hendrik, who works at PT Jaya Dina Buana (JDB), a fish processing company in Surabaya. He said his employer intentionally used his name for that shipping.
"Maybe it's because I've had experience in this," he said, noting that the company he worked before had also traded shark fins.
But official notary acts showed that PT JDB was based in Bandung, West Java, and was founded in October 2022. Mongabay-Indonesia reached out to that company, but our request for comments was declined. Hendrik, however, said the company already had an established network of buyers from China, Singapore and Vietnam despite being newly founded. "All of it [shark fins] was for export," he said.
He said the shipments PT JDB received from Papua could reach 2 tons, or 3,500 fins. The fins arrive by ship, or sometimes by plane, and are usually taken directly to the company's warehouse in Surabaya.
Indonesian law only gives full protection for several species of sharks and rays, such as the whale shark (Rhincondon typus), manta rays and four freshwater ray species. This protected species status means catching, keeping as pets or trading them is illegal.
Meanwhile, other shark and ray species are subject to strict trade regulations imposed by the Indonesian government and international agencies, namely the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which Indonesia ratified in 1978. Anyone who wishes to trade these particular species must obtain a recommendation letter from the authorities. Selling these species abroad must also have permits, known by their acronyms SIPJI and SAJI, and exporting them is limited by a quota set by the government.
Mongabay-Indonesia in March paid a visit to a fish warehouse in East Java. In the main area of the facility, two workers were seen sorting sea cucumbers; meanwhile that space also held nearly 40 kg (88 lbs) of shark fins that were packed in plastic bags and were ready for sale. We were told the fins belonged to several species, including blacktip sharks, white sharks, hammerhead sharks and also rays.
Afe, the owner of the warehouse, said the fins were leftovers from previous sales. "Yesterday we sent 2 tons to Jakarta. This is the rest," he said, and offered to sell it for 67 million rupiah ($4,428).
However, such trade is absolutely illegal, said Suwardi Purboyo, the coordinator of the Denpasar Coastal and Marine Resources Management Center (BPSPL) for the East Java region. He said that as of March, there were only 35 SIPJI holders in the region, 13 of whom were exporters.
"Neither Hendrik nor JDB are in our data. Those names are not listed," Suwardi told Mongabay-Indonesia at his office in March.
JDB is only one of the companies in Java that regularly receives shark supplies from Papua, according to BKIPM documents. Two other companies, PT Nafish Rafa Bahari and CV Mina Miranda Jaya, could not be immediately verified. PT Nafish Rafa Bahari was recorded carrying 100 kg of shark fins in April. Meanwhile, CV Mina Miranda Jaya received 3.6 tons of shipment.
Mongabay-Indonesia also visited the company address listed in the document but found no trace of that company. Locals said they had never heard of them either. A search for company documents on the AHU (administration of general laws) directorate general's website also yielded no results.
A 2018 decree issued by the Indonesian Marine Affairs and Fisheries Ministry (KKP) requires companies to have a fish species utilization permit (SAPJI) and fish transportation document (SAJI) to sell and transport sharks and rays to ensure the traceability of the species.
For this reason, license applicants must include a list of fishing vessels, said Anhar Rusdi, head of the Serang Coastal and Marine Resources Management Workshop (LPSPL).
Given the size of Indonesia's fishing fleet, many unregistered vessels catch sharks or rays. In cases like this, said Anhar, it is certain the species caught are not reported until they enter the illegal market, because they do not have the proper permits.
Source and destination
Indonesia's vast waters are home to almost half of the world's approximately 500 species of sharks and rays, including 120 species of sharks and 101 rays.
According to Muhammad Abdi Suhufan, the national director of the advocacy group Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW), one of the areas that is currently the main fishing location is the Arafura Sea, in southern Papua. This is because other locations, such as the Java Sea, are running low in stock due to overfishing.
"Eventually, the fishers are shifting their catching zone to the east," he said.
Most of the sharks and rays caught in Indonesian waters are shipped to Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city and a gateway to export markets including China, the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.
"Most of it is exported," said Suwardi from BPSPL, adding that domestic sales are rare because the prices are very high.
Data from BKIPM in Merauke, Papua, also show a high supply of sharks from Eastern Indonesia. On average, more than 177 metric tons of sharks were shipped from this single port annually between 2018 and 2022.
Nearly 59% of the 852 SAJI permits issued by BPSPL Denpasar in 2021 are for export purposes. Overall, the number of sharks traded in the East Java region that year included 2,582.3 tons of frozen sharks without heads and fins, and 157.3 tons of dried shark fins. The total economic value of the shark and ray trade in Indonesian territory reached 105 billion rupiah that year (almost $7 million).
High international demand is driving the legal and illegal trade in sharks and rays from Indonesian waters. According to the KKP, Indonesia contributes 16.8% to the global shark market. There are rising concerns as the fishery is unsustainable.
Mukhlis Kamal, a shark and ray researcher from the Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB), said conservation of this species is very important to maintain the balance of the marine ecosystem. As large carnivores, sharks regulate the food chain and control the ecological balance of the sea by eating other species.
"If their population decreases or becomes extinct, the impact on the ecological balance will be felt. The whole ecosystem could collapse," he said.
The wildlife monitoring NGO TRAFFIC in its 2022 report noted concerns from the CITES Technical Committee over the data reported by parties not meeting experts' estimations as the trades were likely undetected and unreported. The TRAFFIC paper also highlighted Indonesia being a clear example of the potential for undetected trade in shark catch.
According to TRAFFIC, this is especially the case when the fins of sharks harvested from protected species, such as the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), are found among those of unprotected species.
Unreported, unmonitored export
DFW research revealed that the Arafura Sea supplied an average of 18.6 tons of dried shark fins per year in 2018-20. "That's just reported data. I believe the number that goes unreported is much greater than that," Abdi said.
Data from BKIPM also show a high supply of sharks from eastern Indonesia. On average, more than 177 metric tons of sharks were shipped from this single port annually between 2018 and 2022.
Okta Tejo Darmono, a researcher at the Fisheries Resource Center Indonesia (FRCI), said he believes unreported catches of sharks and rays are much more numerous than those reported. Increased oversight, he said, would reduce this.
"Officers must check the accuracy of the number of catches reported in the logbook, whether they match the actual data or not," said Tejo.
However, at all the ports visited by Mongabay, there was not a single officer who supervised or collected data on fish landings. No one verified the landed catch with the reported data. On the other hand, sharks and rays were taken directly by buyers.
Tejo said it was difficult to confirm the volume of sharks, rays and their derivatives in the domestic and international markets because many illegal and unrecorded products were circulating. Meanwhile, government data are also unreliable, further raising concerns that illegal export of shark rays and rays persisted with impunity.
The Export of Fisheries Products 2017-2021 published by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries 2022 stated that 492.3 tons of shark fins that were dried and preserved were exported in 2021.
In contrast to data from BKIPM, the total export volume was 40% higher, totaling 689.7 tons. In addition, ministry documents reported that exports of frozen sharks were 4,032.3 tons, but according to BKIPM data, it was 4,785 tons.
Sneaky illegal traders, poor monitoring
Ardiyansah is a local artist based in Rembang, Central Java, who buys ray skins and ships hundreds of them to China using a delivery service every month. This international forwarder service lacks strict monitoring and is known to be one of the ways for shark and ray fins to get smuggled abroad.
Another common practice is for companies to use fake names and documents of another firm that actually holds the required permits. This practice is carried out by PT Jaya Dina Buana in Surabaya. Workers say the company uses a large network of companies under pseudonyms to conduct its business. The company claims to have "insiders" who are used to "playing" the shark fin trade. In fact, there is no need to mix protected and unprotected fins to trick officials.
Purboyo, of BPSPL, said this practice was a result of limited monitoring capacity and resources. "Some of the officers at the lower levels are not very tech savvy," he said.
Mukhlis, the shark researcher, said that Indonesia's territory is so vast that it enables the illegal shark trade. This situation, he said, is exacerbated by inadequate supervisory personnel. "Some may also be corrupt," he said.
Susanto, a supervisory at the Lamongan marine resource and fisheries agency, dismissed accusations of weak supervision. According to him, four of his personnel carry out routine and sting surveillance for permits in the warehouses. "This is to check stock conditions and traceability of goods," he said.
However, these inspections are not without caveats. Before they are carried out, the people concerned receive a letter regarding the inspection plans. Sting inspections happen only when there are reports from the public.
In practice, as observed in several ports visited by Mongabay-Indonesia, sharks and rays are freely traded, even by traders who do not have SIPJI or SAJI permits or letters of recommendation for the species being traded.
Mukhlis called on the government, especially the directorate general of Marine and Fisheries Resources Supervision under the KKP, to increase supervision.
He also said the government had to increase protection for sharks and rays because only 10 of the more than 200 species in Indonesia have protected status.
"Don't let us be misled into thinking that there are still many stingray sharks. It turns out that there are some that are already in danger of extinction."
Sharks, he said, are big business. With a price of millions of rupiah per kilogram, the value is estimated at trillions of rupiah per year. "If we don't take it seriously, sharks will eventually become extinct too."
– Translated by Basten Gokkon