How one S’porean is caring for sharks by caring for fishermen
SINGAPORE — In the three-and-a-half years since she gave up her job as a history teacher to save sharks via eco-tourism, Ms Kathy Xu has seen countless dead sharks destined for the dining table at Tanjung Luar fish market in Lombok.
But until recently, she had not encountered sharks that were still alive at the market. In August when she saw two coral catsharks, still breathing, being sold alongside other dead fish, she decided to save them from a certain death and try releasing them back into the sea.
The two sharks, which were likely to be bycatch, cost 10,000 Indonesian rupiah (about S$1) each. The basin to fill with water to sustain them, before the boat ferrying tourists arrived at surrounding reefs, cost 15,000 rupiah.
Ms Xu was well aware of the risks of buying wildlife from sellers for release: It could spur humans to catch more wildlife for that very purpose. But above all, she wanted to give the two sharks a chance to live.
In the end, it was a bittersweet day: One shark did not make it, while the other swam free in shallow waters fringing a beach, to the joy of Ms Xu and the tourists she was leading.
For conservationists like her, the going is tough, the ride is bumpy and there are few easy answers on the ground.
Ms Xu, 34, first went to Lombok in September 2012 after she saw pictures on Facebook that others had posted of sharks being killed in Tanjung Luar, the biggest fish market in the Indonesian island, where about 50 sharks land each day.
She had earlier developed a love for sharks after watching the documentary Sharkwater, had found out more about the majestic – and often misunderstood – creatures of the sea and began volunteering with Shark Savers.
Months later, Ms Xu quit teaching and set up The Dorsal Effect, a shark conservation outfit.
She takes tourists to Lombok to see the shark-fishing situation first-hand, and offers some fishermen an alternative livelihood by operating boats to take the tourists on snorkelling day-trips.
Business has gone up, albeit very slowly, in the last three years, said Ms Xu, whose polytechnic lecturer husband is supportive of her work.
“At the start, there would be two to three months where there’s nothing happening. Now it’s reached a point where, every month on average, there are one to two trips happening,” she said.
“It also helped that I started to reach out to schools… With the school trips, it really helps because at one point in time, I can engage five boats.”
Engaging more boats means income for more fishermen. Ms Xu pays the crew of each boat US$150 (about S$206) per day trip, which exceeds what they used to earn from a few days out at sea catching sharks.
The fishermen who work with Ms Xu no longer hunt sharks but still catch other fish to supplement their income.
The frequency of snorkelling trips has not reached a sustainable level yet – she reckoned it would take eight groups of either schools or companies signing up for trips each year, coupled with daily trips comprising individual tourists.
But Ms Xu is also wary of rapid expansion, and its impact on the environment, such as damage to the corals. “So I’m always caught in this struggle, this balance.”
She tries to minimise damage to nature by getting participants to use reef-safe sunscreen, and cautions against the kicking of corals and indiscriminate dropping of boat anchors.
She also minimises the use of disposable cutlery during meals, encourages the picking of litter and supplies information sheets on the marine ecosystem that participants pass around to read.
POTENTIAL IN ECO-TOURISM, BUT...
There is potential in eco-tourism as a form of livelihood diversification for shark fishermen in Lombok, said Mr I Made Dharma Jaya Aryawan, the marine protected area coordinator of West Nusa Tenggara for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
The WCS, an international non-governmental organisation, has tracked data on sharks and rays landing at Tanjung Luar market since December 2013 and has also conducted a socio-economic survey there to understand the fishermen better.
About 80 shark species can be found in the seas around Lombok, and species threatened by overfishing include the tiger shark, silky shark, black-tip reef shark and scalloped hammerhead shark, he said.
But Mr Dharma felt that eco-tourism is not yet feasible as an alternative livelihood for several reasons. Tourism is dependent on the global economic situation, which is currently bleak. Shark-fishing is lucrative and legal in Indonesia, except the catching of whale sharks.
Fishermen will need to develop certain skills to take part in eco-tourism, and most tourist boats operating in Tanjung Luar currently do not involve fishermen in general, he added.
“These boats are mostly owned by some ‘elite’ in Tanjung Luar, who have strong networks with tourism agencies in Lombok and they are not willing to share the customers with other smaller stakeholders,” he said.
Ms Xu’s eco-tourism efforts are, nonetheless, are a great way to allow people from Singapore to see the shark-landing site for themselves and potentially influence demand for shark products, said Mr Dharma, who has known her since 2014.
Looking ahead, Ms Xu has set her sights both further, as well as closer to home.
From the beginning, she has wanted to save sharks in three of the world’s top shark-fishing territories – Indonesia, India and Taiwan.
“Right from the start, I was very idealistic…Along the way, I realised how hard it was and then I got entrenched in Lombok and I realised how important it was to know the local community,” she said.
She is taking steps towards her goal, and recently visited some fishing ports in Taiwan.
Ms Xu is also keen to find out more about the shark situation in Singapore – the numbers that land in fishing ports here and, if possible, to gather other data and release any sharks that are alive.
She and fellow marine enthusiasts are trying to work out a proposal before approaching the local authorities.
“I really believe in citizen science, so we were thinking this could be something that could get Singaporeans excited about sharks… When you talk about sharks, it’s not something that’s far away,” she said.
‘100% A SHARK CONSERVATIONIST’
Despite her efforts, the self-effacing environmentalist hesitates to call herself a shark conservationist. “I would like to but I really don’t dare to use the term because I feel like I don’t have a marine science background,” she said.
“When I started this, the first motivation was for sharks. That’s also the one thing I haven’t been able to track in terms of difference, because I don’t know how to translate fishermen numbers into number of sharks caught — or not. So that’s something that’s a bit frustrating.”
There is no doubt, however, in the mind of her friend Naomi Clark. “Kathy is 100 per cent a shark conservationist! You don’t need ‘educational training’ in something to pursue it as a career or give yourself a ‘title’ — and Kathy has done more for shark conservation than most people trained in marine science have,” said Ms Clark, a marine biologist who has been on a few trips with Ms Xu and helps with the marine conservation aspect of The Dorsal Effect.
Calling The Dorsal Effect an all-rounded initiative that tackles the supply and demand side of shark fishing, Ms Clark said: “I think her school trips are especially valuable as they provide in-depth insight to the issue at hand — participants get to see the uncensored shark market, meet the shark fishermen, see that they are kind, warm people, and join them for snorkelling trips. It’s unique, raw, and impacting. While shark fishermen are often painted as the enemy, Kathy’s work highlights to participants that they are not – they are good people in unfortunate circumstances.”
Ms Clark added: “While Kathy has only been operating The Dorsal Effect for a few years, and while it’s been a difficult road for her, I have seen the positive impact she has made.”
* This feature was the reporter’s project for the Asia Journalism Fellowship.