One-hundred-and-five sharks have been slaughtered in the Raja Ampat marine conservation area. However, hope lies with the oath known as Sasi to spare this marine life.
Five black-finned sharks were swimming back and forth along the white sand coast of Wayag Island, Raja Ampat, West Papua, a fortnight ago. Their fins cut the water surface. But there is no cause for alarm. These carcharhinus limbatus were just waiting for the entrails of mackerels thrown by four young men from the wooden quay.
"They're just like our pets," said Nikson Daat, a Marine Conservation employee in the Kawe Area.
Every time they hear footsteps along the wooden pier, this group of about 4-year-old, 1-meter-long sharks would come over to await any food such as fish thrown into the water.
However, on April 28, a conservation attendant caught people killing some 105 sharks of various kinds, threatening Raja Ampat's ecosystem.
The Raja Ampat conservation areas, consisting of seven zones with a total size of 1.1 million hectares, are sacred land for many sea inhabitants. These waters are home to 1,437 species of rock fish, 42 kinds of shrimps, and nine species of whales.
A ban on taking marine life was formed on November 17, 2006. This ban constitutes part of Sasi, which is the oath not to take any natural resources from a certain place for a given period. The Papuan people undertake this when forest or fish products decline "to look after nature," said Apolos Sewa, Traditional Chief of the Sorong Community, which controls Rajat Ampat.
The Kawe tribesmen who inhabit the western part of Waigeo Island oversee their sea by a ship donated by the International Conservation community. The Raja Ampat government reinforces this local rule through a regional regulation plus a decree of the Fisheries and Marine Ministry.
However, Raja Ampat is not always peaceful, as discovered by Nikson et al in the waters of Wayang Island late last month. In the eastern waters of Sayang Island the outermost island of the Raja Ampat Islands, 250 kilometers northwest of Sorong they detected four ships at anchor. Aboard a ship, he found seven shark fins. Even though the passengers were told fishing was prohibited. The wooden ship measuring 12 by 3 meters was manned by seven crew. Three other ships came close to his fast boat measuring 5 by 2 meters.
Two days later, Nikson received reinforcement. Sixteen men comprising leading kampong figures, environment activists and two member of the TNI Navy plied the Sayang Island waters by two fast boats. Nikson and his buddies were surprised.
Now there were seven ships. On board the ships were 105 grey sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), white-finned sharks (Triaenodon Obesus) and black sharks that had just been slaughtered. "All of them had been cut. Only five remained intact," reported Abraham Goram Gaman, an official from Conservation International. Among the shark carcasses was a ray that had also been mutilated. At Sorong traditional marketplace, a kilogram of shark fin costs up to Rp3 million.
The officials confiscated the ship documents, two units of compressors for diving and a fishing line. Not every fish was confiscated due to limited space. Only 10 kilos of shark fins were taken as material evidence along with 33 perpetrators who were rounded up to Waisai, the capital of Raja Ampat. The three-hour examination for documentary evidence ended at sundown on the Halmahera Sea. The officials accelerated the boats as they were not equipped with lights, making it risky to set sail at dark. Seeing that Abraham and company went first, the seven fishermen's boats turned west heading for their village on Gebe Island, Central Halmahera.
A perpetrator, Halim Usman, 48, claimed he was actually taking workers from their residence at Yowi village, Gebe Island, to the cultivate copra plantation on Sayang Island. While waiting for the workers, for three days he fished sharks with a permit from the village chief. "I didn't know it was prohibited," he said. Gebe is some 30 kilometers away from Sayang Island.
Head of the Gebe Youths, Zakaria Umpaim, who also came aboard a ship, considers Sayang Island and its neighbor, Piyai, part of Central Halmahera. This claim is not wrong.
The Home Affairs Ministry stated that the two islands were not part of Raja Ampat. In a letter numbered 130/296/PUM dated February 3, 2011, the Director-General for Public Governance, I Made Suwandi, said the decree came from a verification made by the National Team for Standardizing the Name of Rupabumi. This claim is rejected by the Sorong Community Traditional Council that considers the two inhabitantless islands part of Raja Ampat. "They've never come to the field for talks with the people," said Apolos.
Whatever the argument is, the boundary is no reason not to catch sharks in the areas. Anyway, the waters where the sharks were butchered belong to the marine conservation areas. "Here lies the infraction," said Sorong Naval Base commander Col. Irvansyah. His office put the 33 fishermen on the list of wanted men because they violated Regional Regulation No. 5/2008 concerning Regional Marine Conservation Areas, an offence holding a maximum six-month prison sentence.
A Conservation International official said the Gebe fishermen moved to the Kawe waters, since the fish were increasingly rare to come by. Apolos suggested that his neighbors joined Sasi.
Today the grey, white-finned and black-finned sharks that are the dominant predators in Raja Ampat are categorized as "near-threatened," five levels below extinct, on the list issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The sharks are also important to preserve the ecosystem around coral reefs. Dwi Aryo Tjipto Handono, the Nature Conservation communications coordinator, said these number-one predators in the ocean prey only on sick fish, the oldest and the weakest in their communities. "So [they] create a healthy ecosystem," he said.
Research has also discovered that the predator-prey relationship is more than about food to fill the stomach. The scientists studying the coral reefs in the Caribbean waters discovered that the dwindling number of sharks in those waters caused the grouper population, a favorite food of sharks, to number. As a result, the small fish that eat seaweed, such as botana and kakaktua, are eaten by groupers, so seaweed growth cannot be controlled. Coral reefs, the home to fish, become damaged as a result of the growth explosion of seaweed, destroying the habitat of fish.
Apolos believes that Sasi is important to stabilize the ecosystem balance in the Raja Ampat waters. Moreover, fishermen are already experiencing its benefits. Daud Jimla, 40, for instance, a member of Sarpele village, Waigeo Island, said he had to travel 30 kilometers out to sea six years ago in order to get a catch. "Now I only need to go 2 kilometers." Five hours at sea, would earn him at least Rp120,000 a day.
By Reza Maulana (Raja Ampat)
No. 41/12, June 10, 2012
Fishermen suspected of illegal fishing arrested along with caught sharks at the marine conservation area in Sayang Island, Raja Ampat, West Papua, April 30.