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'€˜The Dorsal Effect'€™ Take a Vacation, Save the Sharks

  • Stevie Emilia

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore | Tue, June 16, 2015 | 10:57 am
'€˜The Dorsal Effect'€™ Take a Vacation, Save the Sharks

Dozens of sharks are hauled ashore and dropped onto a dirty floor at the busy Tanjung Luar fish market in East Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. In the blink of an eye, their fins are sliced off.

The gruesome picture was captured in Hunted, The Dorsal Effect '€” a short film released by an ecotourism venture founded by Singaporean Kathy Xu, who offers tourists eco-tours to secluded parts of Lombok.

Xu said her main goals were to save sharks, help fishermen and promote conservation in Lombok.

Her goal to stop shark fishing could only be possible by giving the fishermen an alternative livelihood to catching sharks '€” a booming trade that is increasingly alarming environmentalists.

'€œWhen you see sharks in their natural habitat, I think that there'€™s a point where something would change in you and you really want your future generations to be able to experience that as well. That'€™s the dream of The Dorsal Effect,'€ Xu said.

Her passion for shark conservation began after swimming with a whale shark in the Indian Ocean off Australia'€™s Ningaloo reef back in 2011.

'€œSeeing how gentle the giant was, I decided my life had to be dedicated to making sure people don'€™t misunderstand these amazing creatures anymore,'€ the 33-year-old said.

Rob Stewart'€™s mind-blowing documentary Sharkwater '€” which throws light on stereotypes of sharks as bloodthirsty, man-eating monsters and instead reveals the reality of sharks as pillars in the sea'€™s evolution '€” further opened her eyes.

Taking sharks out of the coral reef ecosystem would increase the number of larger predatory fish feeding on herbivores, scientists have said, and without the presence of those herbivore fish, the ecosystem will collapse as the shift to single algae dominance would destroy corals and the reef system.

Reality check: Captured sharks are taken to Tanjung Luar fish market in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara.Reality check: Captured sharks are taken to Tanjung Luar fish market in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara.

Xu said that after watching the documentary, she started volunteering with Shark Saver in Singapore as well as giving educational talks and spreading awareness about shark conservation through campaigns.

Over time, the former secondary school teacher wanted to walk the talk '€“ she wanted to do more.

She decided to go to Lombok where Shark Savers'€™ director Jonn Benedict Lu told her about the plight of sharks in the area. In the back of her mind, she thought she could offer the shark fisherman an alternative source of income to stop shark fishing.

In Lombok, reality bit. At that time, in 2012, she said the situation was already pretty bad, with about up to 400 sharks caught each day and hauled into the Tanjung Luar fish market.

She started talking to fishermen, asking if they would be happy with a higher income by doing something else that was more lucrative, like setting up bird nest houses, but they were not.

Soon, she realized it was because they did not want to learn new things and be away from the ocean.

The idea for the eco-tours '€“ taking tourists for boat trips off Tanjung Luar '€”started to materialize.

'€œIt'€™s places that are not even listed on Lonely Planet or anywhere on Google. You can'€™t Google-search the places we go to yet,'€ she said.

It is estimated some 100 million sharks are killed each year to serve the demand for shark fins '€” the main ingredient for shark-fin soup, a popular delicacy that symbolizes power, prestige and wealth that dates back to China'€™s Ming Dynasty.

Real thing: A tourist enjoys a dive in waters off Tanjung Luar in Lombok.Real thing: A tourist enjoys a dive in waters off Tanjung Luar in Lombok.

The shark finning practice is largely blamed for the decline of most shark species, with at least 8,000 tons of dried shark fins reportedly being traded around the world every year.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data in 2010 showed Indonesia was among the most rapacious of 20 countries in the world that hunted sharks.

The Indonesian government issued a ministerial decree in 2013 on shark protection status, that cites that whale sharks that can grow to more than 12 meters long and live up to 100 years old have full protection status '€” meaning that killing one for any reason is strictly prohibited. Other shark species, like the large-tooth sawfish and the thresher shark, also have protected status.

But the regulation does not guarantee a stop to shark fishing. With the ecotourism venture, Xu said the
fishermen could see their families often, while shark hunting trips would make them stay at sea for up to 20 days at a time, making between US$50 and $100 per trip.

With The Dorsal Effect, tourists pay $120 to $150 for a one-day tour, allowing the fishermen who double as guides to make around $150 per trip.

'€œThe fishermen make more money as shark hunting'€™s a gamble and even if they managed to catch sharks, their pay was still meager compared to fin traders,'€ Xu said.

Her venture, however, did not make her parents happy as she struggled to get by with part-time lecturing pay while working to make The Dorsal Effect sustainable.

'€œMy family disapproved of the project initially as they were worried about me not being able to get by and that I don'€™t have a business background,'€ said Xu, who studied history at the National University of Singapore.

Her life took a twist after her project won the Singapore International Foundation'€™s Young Social Entrepreneurs program in 2013, which came with $10,000 grant. The short but powerful film, which has garnered over 1 million hits since it was released in October last year, was made after that.

Now, although her venture is still small, she has taken many tourists, mostly from Singapore, on her eco-tours. Several shark fishermen have abandoned their old jobs.

Singaporean Jianlin Liu, who booked a two-day trip with The Dorsal Effect, said he and his friends were impressed by Lombok'€™s pristine, clear waters and the reefs, which are bursting with life.

'€œWe have gained a greater appreciation of marine conservation by interacting with the local guides and fishermen,'€ he said in his review at Tripadvisor in June this year.

Suhardi, a converted shark fisherman, said he was happy he could spend more time with his family instead of facing the stress of being out in the open sea for so much time without knowing whether he could bring money home.

From his home on Gili Merengke Island, the father of two said he also enjoyed a much more stable income that he partly used to pay installments for his own boat.

After around two years pushing for The Dorsal Effect, Xu has no regrets about dedicating her life for sharks.

In fact, she found her life has an even greater purpose now, feeling her efforts are fruitful once each boat tripper returns home with a bit of more knowledge about sharks and their plight.

'€œI want to live in a world where my children and my children'€™s children can still see sharks alive in the oceans,'€ Xu said.

Photos courtesy of The Dorsal Effect

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