Shark tagging with Conservation International Indonesia

Samata recently teamed up with Conservation International, an organization dedicated to protecting the environment and its creatures on their shark tagging project in Alor, one of Indonesia’s lesser-known islands that boasts a magnificent underworld.

Leading the project was coral reef ecologist and senior advisor for Conservation International Indonesia’s marine program Dr. Mark Erdmann and fisheries data specialist at UNDP Rafid Shidqi. The conservation efforts focused on researching Thresher shark behaviour and educating local fishermen about the importance of protecting these incredible animals.

Samata’s cruise director Michael Click took part in the project and has shared his recount of the experience:

It takes a village to tag a shark (but only one man to hunt)

In order to put satellite tags on some of Alor’s Thresher sharks, the research team employed the wisdom of local fishermen to help with the shark tagging project. It was amazing to witness the willingness of these men to help – usually they are hunting the sharks – but now have greater awareness of the susceptibility these incredible animals have to overfishing. Thresher sharks are listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.

It was discovered that a group of about 5 or 6 fishermen typically catch up to 4 sharks per day. They work alone in small boats with simple tools; using rocks and palm fronds to drop several hundred meters of line into the deepest parts of the straight.

Their boats rocked in the waves as the wind and current constantly tested their balance.

thresher shark and boat

Photo credit: Sarah Lewis

The way a thresher shark hunts is by whipping its tail and stunning fish so they can feed. The fishermen would hold the line to feel when a shark whips the bait.

Measuring close to 2 metres in length and at times, weighing more than 100kg, you can imagine the task of pulling in an animal of such size. For almost an hour the shark fought the fisherman and the fisherman fought the shark. Seeing how physically demanding this process was humbled us all. These men seemed superhuman to me.

The shark tagging process

The fishermen would yell “dekat, dekat”, which means “close by” in Indonesian as the shark reached the surface. The researchers, videographer and I, as a safety diver, then jumped into the water.

With the shark momentarily held captive at the water’s surface, the team took its measurements, placed the satellite tag on the base of its dorsal fin and would sometimes swim with it before they released it.

At one point, we were waiting for the fishermen to catch another shark when we noticed a fin break the surface. We all jumped investigate. I couldn’t help but think about the Mako shark sightings from the previous days, which are rarely seen in this area. In the end, it turned out to be a sunfish, an enormously round tropical fish. Google it! Alor is a constant surprise.

Shark tagging ain’t no ‘man-only’ task

As the father of a little girl, It was a privilege to witness the all-female team at work tagging. While Dr. Erdmann and his team led the operation, it was the women on board who took the lead when he and his team were off performing research in another area. These women exhibited fearlessness, confidence and utter capability as they tagged one of the Thresher sharks in Dr. Erdmann’s absence.

Speaking of feminine power, one of the fisherman shared a touching moment in his experience when he caught a shark that was pregnant. He said it was heartbreaking because he could feel the sadness of this female shark and saw what looked like tears in her eyes. He decided to let her go.

One of the highlights for me on this journey was being present when Dr. Erdmann found an unidentified fish; a small gobie. It might have been slight in size, but how many people on the planet have witnessed the discovery of a new species? I feel honored to have been a part of that.

Discovering a new species of fish in Alor

The adventure lasted 7 days  and the work now is to find a way for local fishermen to stop hunting thresher sharks yet provide the equivalent nourishment for their families. One idea is to create a marine protected area and appoint these fisherman as the rangers to protect it. The connection this community has to the sea and the environment is something very special indeed.

Photo credit: Sarah Lewis

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If you’re interested in using your vacation as an opportunity to dip your toes into some of the conservation work we’re apart of at Samata, then connect with us directly. We’re more than happy to discuss the ways in which you can contribute to local communities or to the conservation efforts of Indonesia’s incredible ecosystem.

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