Jailing Indonesians for shark-finning in Australia doesn’t solve the real driver – poverty
- Instead of knee-jerk solutions like fines and jail terms, Australia could help Indonesia improve fishing sustainability and tackle coastal poverty
- Shark fins, sought mainly in Chinese markets for high-status soup and traditional medicine, is gaining popularity in parts of Southeast Asia
But is fining them up to A$6,000 (US$4,015) – a significant sum for these men – likely to stop sharks being killed? Hardly.
Desperate Indonesian fishers are setting out across the Arafura Sea in record numbers, with 46 fishing boats detected since June. Many gamble with their lives and some have lost. Authorities have found illegal fishing camps on Niiwalarra Island, alongside shark carcasses with their fins taken.
Shark fins are sought mainly in Chinese markets for use in a high-status soup and in traditional medicine. Demand has seen wholesale slaughter of these predators, essential to the proper functioning of ocean ecosystems. We’re hardly blameless – Australia exports tonnes of shark fin each year. We have to find a better way of protecting sharks in our waters – some of the last healthy populations on the planet.
But heavy fishing means many fish stocks are now low, and tensions have risen between larger trawlers and small-scale fishers from villages. If you are from a poor village and there is nothing left to catch locally, where do you go?
You can admire the courage of fishers who set out in very small, barely seaworthy vessels with rudimentary fishing equipment to cross the Arafura to poach fish. In reality though, it is a mix of courage and poverty-driven desperation. A 2018 report found fisher monthly income was roughly A$50 (US$33.45) per month, well below the minimum wage in coastal regions.
You can see the choice many face. Continue in poverty – or try to catch sharks, knowing a fin can sell for as much as a month’s wages.
Not all shark fins are the same. Particularly prized are fins from the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead shark. These sharks have fins with a high thread count, meaning they are desirably fibrous. Killing of these sharks for their fins has almost wiped out populations in parts of their range – but they’re still relatively abundant in Australian waters.
How is Australia responding?
The Australian Defence Force has a near-constant presence watching for fishers through its Operation Resolute and assisting with enforcement efforts run by Australia’s fisheries management authority.
Enforcement ranges from “educating” fishers found inside Australian waters and sending them on their way to confiscating equipment and catch to criminal charges. Australia and Indonesia regularly talk about illegal fishing. And Australia has signed up to shark protection efforts internationally.
Despite this, the issue is worse than ever. Last decade, an average of 20 foreign fishing boats were intercepted each year. Last financial year, it soared to a staggering 337. Sharks aren’t the only drawcard – fishers take finfish and sea cucumber too.
Why are sharks still killed for their fins?
Eating shark fins is good for no one. There are no identifiable health benefits. There is no taste you cannot get from eating cartilage from farm animals instead. And when you eat the fin, you are likely to get a dangerous dose of mercury, which accumulates up the food chain.
From the shark’s perspective, it is a particularly gruesome way to die. Fins are typically cut from the shark while it is alive. When released back to the water, it will either sink and drown, get eaten by another predator, or die from blood loss.
Sharks and their close cousins, rays, have been decimated, with populations of 18 key species falling a disastrous 70 per cent since the 1970s. They have been caught as by-catch by trawlers and longliners, sought for their fins or their oily livers, or killed out of fear.
While there is occasional good news, it is difficult to be optimistic.
Killing sharks can destroy other fisheries. Losing large sharks led to the end of the North Carolina scallop fishery. Without large sharks, cownose ray populations exploded, and the hungry rays ate all the scallops.
So what can we do to save our sharks from desperate fishers?
This is a wicked problem. “Education” is hardly going to stop fishers who know precisely why they are here and what risks they are taking, as the steep rise in illegal fishing suggests. Fines they can’t pay and the inconvenience of short prison sentences are clearly not doing the job.
You might wonder why we cannot get advance warning of fishers heading into our waters. Even modern radar struggles to spot small wooden boats across millions of square kilometres of ocean, and surveillance planes and patrol boats cannot be everywhere. Besides, until the vessels reach Australia’s exclusive economic zone, they have every right to be on the high seas.
We should also help Indonesia find more sustainable ways of tending its own fisheries, and tackling coastal community poverty.
Jailing and fining fishers is a knee-jerk solution. As long as shark fin soup is on the menu and as long as we have valuable sharks, there will be fishers desperate enough to come into Australian waters to hunt them.