A Fish Full of Dollars

by filmmaker ADRIENNE GITTUS











Adrienne Gittus was part of a tight knit diving community when she first visited the fish market of Tanjung Luar in East Lombok, Indonesia. There she was horrified to see the very creatures that she hoped to witness alive and swimming serenely below the surface in the nearby waters. Rather, she saw them splayed out in graphic scenes on concrete floors as fishermen hacked sleek beautiful sharks and rays into bloody, unidentifiable pieces.

11,417 sharks are killed every hour

Gittus is an award winning filmmaker who, after 10 years of teaching diving, turned to cinematography to share her passions for marine life and conservation. Upon witnessing the gruesome scene at the Tangung market in her adopted home of Indonesia, she decided to create a film to delve into the country’s role as the number one shark fishing nation in the world. And, sadly, it doesn’t just end at just sharks.

The gentle reef manta ray, prized for its gill plates (which hold unproven medicinal qualities in the treatment for issues from rashes to cancer) are listed under conservation status on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable. These peaceful, enigmatic giants are killed and their plates sold for a mere couple hundred dollars. As is the case with sharks, these animals are killed solely for the supposed medicinal benefit of a small slice of their bodies. Since the flesh of marine life at the top of the food web tends to sport the highest levels of toxins through accumulation up the chain of predator/prey interactions, the meat is inedible and so the rest of the carcass is thrown away.

One third of the world’s countries have banned finning of sharks to sell on the Chinese black market for shark fin soup for which millions are killed each year to help support the affluence and prosperity of the Chinese elite. The hope is that the market will drop for these and other illegal marine products that run for prices on the black market that entice penniless fishermen.

But with the illegality and bans on collection of fins and gill plates, are the market prices falling fast enough to save these sea creatures in time? Sharks and rays suffer more drastically from human exploitation because of their low rate of reproduction and the length of time it takes for them to become reproductively mature. Since these species take such a long time to replenish their populations, the unlimited harvesting of them will quickly result in extinction unless significant actions are taken quickly. In a community rife with corruption and the enforcement of fishing regulations erratic, small fishing villages run practically unchecked with total disregard for the kinds of species caught and whether they’re at risk of extinction and under federal protections.

As is the reality, the film describes in detail how fishermen are dealing with their own troubles and survival. These folks live in third-world conditions, smack dab on the poverty line. They go where the money is in order to support their families, and have for generations. But even though the money on the black market flows heavy for shark fins and gill plates, most the wealth goes to the middle man, or intermediaries, and the fishermen receive only a tiny fraction of the total amount fetched.

Interviews with Indonesian fishermen in largest shark-catching nation in the world reveal their own view of the overfishing across the generations. A marked decrease in size and quantity reflects the impact overfishing has had on fish populations and force fishermen to travel further afield to collect a sufficient haul. Despite the reduced catches, the regulations and protections invoked on species that are pending extinction, not all fishermen are making the connection.

To lose an apex (top) predator like sharks from our marine habitats, the resulting shift in the environment could throw off an ecosystem enough to cause its complete collapse. Loss of biodiversity in our coastal ecosystems already struggling against climate change and other human influence hurts our economy and the communities that depend on the fruits of the seas. This resources cannot renew itself fast enough and, with the rampant poaching industry, its resources could be extinguished faster than we can keep up with to save these species before they’re lost.

But by providing the fishing community with another source of funding to survive upon, the demandfor these illegal products will hopefully drop enough in time to save these species, which is why ecotourism could step in as a responsible and lucrative alternative. As one of the top destinations for shark and manta ray tourism, Indonesian fishermen could find work in the tour guide industry. While that is a big leap for a fisherman on the poverty line, help from the Indonesian government or foreign investment could be the perfect jump-start to convert Tanjung Luar into an ecotourism destination. While the income would be reduced as compared to poaching or taking tourists on fishing trips, it would be enough to live on and support a family, in a more consistent, stable and less stressful career. And a single manta ray would contribute a whole lot more to the economy over the decades of its life through dive tourism and manta watching rather than for it’s one-time trade sale of a few hundred dollars for its gill plates.

To help reduce the value of shark fins and manta gill plates, conservation groups are working to reduce demand in China’s Hong Kong markets. The goal is to reduce price for harvest enough to stop incentivizing fishermen. With the collective effort of bans on shark-fin soup within the industry and through celebrities speaking out against eating the dish, in an effort to raise awareness and increase unpopularity of the act. 

But there are people fighting for these marine species. organization named The Dorsal Effect, started up by Chinese Singaporean Kathy Xu offers a solution for fishermen by providing alternative employment as tour guides on snorkle and dive excursions. Bali Sharks is a conservation nursery that rescues live juvenile sharks that are brought in by local fishermen who caught them as bycatch. Sharks are rehabilitated, raised and released into the Marine Protected Area of the Gili islands near Lombok.

At the end of the film, the filmmaker points out that this is just a single perspective on a much vaster issue. “This is a global problem explored at a local level.” Then we’re brought back to the concrete floors and a knife hacking away at a nearly unidentifiable manta ray. And suddenly we’re brought underwater, watching the living creatures cavorting among scuba divers, chasing each other, seeming to soar through the air, alive and free.

Help stop the illegal harvesting of sharks and rays. Click here to see how you can help.

Watch the film Fish Full of Dollars here

Find out more about Adrienne Gittus’ work:

@sharksindonesia on Twitter

@soulwaterprod on Twitter

@sharkfishingindonesia on Facebook

@soulwaterproductions on Facebook



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