The Sherlock Holmes of the Shark Fisheries Industry

As I experience the joy of a third (or was it a fourth, or a fifth?) lockdown and follow the evolution of multiple new Covid19 variants racing against a worldwide vaccination spree, Google Photos keeps reminding me that last year, during this very week, on this very day, I was in what feels now like a different planet, exploring Java Island with my colleague Andhika in search of sharks and rays.


Now before you get too excited, let me specify that I am not about to post cute sharky pictures and reminisce on breathtaking diving stories because no, that is not what we were there for. In fact, Google Photos frames my pictures of processed shark fins as if they needed one, but really, I’m not sure they deserve to be framed. Our work was indeed quite down-to-earth, and at times gruesome. The path we tread was one of awe and disbelief, excitement and sadness, fascination and shock, and I am ashamed it took me so long to write about it, but to my defence, perhaps I needed time to reflect on this experience and what it truly meant to me.


Andhika and Marine holding enormous shark fins from several species. Photo © Marine Cusa


Practically speaking, I was in Indonesia for two reasons; one, to film Andhika as he was conducting his fascinating work on the shark and ray product trade, and second, to help him collect the samples he needed for his analysis and test the method in the field. It was both fascinating and exhausting, we relentlessly visited countless fishing landing sites, ports, and processing plants on Java Island under what felt to me like unbearable moisture and heat, though Andhika did not seem to mind. Our talented cameraman, Bruno Cusa, filmed non-stop, producing over 40 hours of unique footage on an industry that is often seen and understood through a single lens, the macabre practice of shark finning. Instead, what we saw was an intricate and misunderstood industry, one on which many artisanal fishermen and local businesses rely, one that brings both food and money to coastal communities, and one that is also coated with mistrust, problematic behaviours, and obscure and unlawful practices. In short, it’s complicated.


Bruno Cusa in action, filming the workers from a shark smoking factory in Tegal. Photo © Marine Cusa


I feel like I could write a book about this, or perhaps use this 40 hour footage to create a nice documentary, which I promise is on my to-do-list of urgent matters, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll now focus on what Andhika was doing amidst this complex web that is the shark fisheries industry.


Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of the shark fisheries industry pertains to the trade of endangered shark and ray species or, to the trade of sharks and rays from poorly- or un-regulated stocks (i.e. we know nothing about the health status of their population, their number, or how many of them are being caught). This is extremely problematic as it clearly undermines the sustainable harvest of sharks and rays and contributes to their ongoing, and sadly dramatic, decline. Indonesia has some fairly strict regulations when it comes to the trade of shark and ray species, and endangered species cannot legally be exported abroad. But the demand for shark and ray products, particularly their fins, is quite high, and smugglers pass the fins of endangered species as if they were from least-concern species. This opens the door to a trade of endangered animals and, since the products are processed, it is extremely hard to control or regulate! This is where Andhika comes in.


Andhika using a guide book to identify species of guitar fish about to be processed. Photo © Marine Cusa


I kind of see Andhika as the Sherlock Holmes of the shark fisheries industry world. Andhika is working on developing and testing forensic methods that could help fisheries inspectors identify shark products without relying on any physical features. This means that even if inspectors are faced with a pile of fins destined for export, they could use cutting edge portable DNA methods to quickly identify the species those fins belong to, and stop any illegal export from happening. Elementary my dear Watson!


Andhika using molecular methods to identify processed shark products. Photo © Marine Cusa


If you’d like to hear more about Andhika’s fascinating work, check this page and keep your eyes peeled for some more news about the techniques he is using and testing for the identification of shark products in the field! And if you’d like to see some videos on this beautiful journey, don’t hesitate to express your interest on my channel (perhaps it will motivate me), and please arm yourself with patience, editing is a lengthy process, especially for a full time PhD student! Check here and here to learn more about this project in Indonesia. I’d like to express my thanks to Joanna Murray and Stefano Mariani for working hard to send me over to Indonesia with Andhika, and to Cefas for providing the financial resources needed for me to do so. I would also like to express my gratitude to the wonderful people we’ve met along the way who chatted to us about their work, joys, and struggles, and who let us film them. I’d like to thank my father, Bruno Cusa, who also happens to be a ridiculously talented cameraman, for his time and effort and for his gorgeous footage. And finally, I’d like to thank Andhika Prima Prasetyo himself for trusting me, allowing me to accompany him on his journey, and for teaching me so much about such a fascinating field!


An awesome team! Photo © Marine Cusa


Marine Cusa

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