Traders gather every day to buy sharks and rays at Tasikagung Harbor, Rembang, Central Java. Cici, one of those who claims to be able to collect at least one pickup every day.
From the warehouse at the end of the harbour, Cici sells these fish to various places. All of this happened without supervision from the officers.
This trade is very complex, with many actors. Starting from fishermen who sell their catch to small-scale collectors like Cici. They then sell the fresh or frozen fish, or parts thereof such as shark fins, to large-scale traders who sell to exporters.
With so many parties involved, shark fining traders use various means to circumvent regulations, officials find it difficult to control or even quantify what is sold.
The catch is not reported
Regulation of the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries No. 61/2018 requires business actors to have a fish species utilization permit (SAPJI) and fish transportation document (SAJI) to sell and transport sharks and rays to ensure the traceability of the species being traded.
Kadromi, a fishing boat owner, confirmed this practice. His eight ships routinely catch 1-2 tons of sharks or rays every time he goes out to sea. “But not everything is reported in the e -logbook ,” he said.
Okta Tejo Darmono, a researcher at the Fisheries Resource Center Indonesia (FRCI), believes that unreported catches of sharks and rays are much larger than those reported. Increased oversight, he said, would reduce this.
“Officers must check the accuracy of the number of catches reported in the e-logbook , whether it matches the actual data or not,” said Tejo.
However, at all the ports visited by Mongabay , there was not a single supervisor who supervised or collected data on fish landings. No one cross-checked the catch with the reported data. On the other hand, sharks and rays are taken directly by buyers.
Different data , regulatory challenges
Inter-government data is confusing. For example, the Export of Fisheries Products 2017-2021 published by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries 2022 stated that 492.3 tons of shark fins that were dried and preserved were exported in 2021.
In contrast to data from the Fish Quarantine and Quality Control Agency (BKIPM), the total export volume was 40% higher, totaling 689.7 tonnes. Likewise, ministry documents reported that exports of frozen sharks were 4,032.3 tons, according to BKIPM data it was 4,785 tons.
In a 2022 report , the Germany-based non-profit organization Traffic said: The CITES Technical Committee raised concerns that the trade data reported by parties did not meet experts’ expectations. That, international trade in sharks listed in CITES may go undetected and unreported.
According to Traffic, this is especially the case when the fins of sharks harvested from protected species, such as the CITES-listed lanjaman shark ( Carcharhinus falciformis ), are out in the sea and mixed with the fins of unprotected species.
Sarminto Hadi, Coordinator of Utilization of Areas and Fish Species at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, acknowledged that although Indonesia has laws to suppress illegal trade, shark trade is still rampant.
He believes that the transfer of management authority for protected fish species to MMAF from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2020 will improve the situation.
Sarminto said that one of the problems was that not all SIPJI holders owned boats, so they had to form partnerships with fishermen or ship owners. However, some fishing or shark fishing vessels have not been registered, because the provisions for registering shark fishing vessels will only be implemented in 2022.
Another challenge, said Tejo, is the small number of actors in the supply chain who have relevant permits. In addition, there is a national catch quota system that is divided in every province in Indonesia before being divided again among business actors there.
The problem is, not all collectors or business actors holding quotas have goods to sell. At the same time, there are business actors who own goods, but do not have permits or quotas.
According to Sarminto, lawbreakers who use various means to circumvent regulations often play cat and mouse with the authorities in Indonesia.
They, he said, use various ways to circumvent regulations. These include, illegally cutting shark fins at sea and smuggling them ashore, not reporting catches, and mixing products from protected and non-protected species. The aim is to take advantage of the officers’ weaknesses in identifying species.
Therefore, he said, registration of vessels and fishermen is very important to ensure product legality.
One common practice is using a ‘pseud name’ and falsifying fish fins as belonging to a company with a SIPJI and SAJI license. The perpetrators referred to the term ‘borrow the flag’.
This practice is also carried out by PT Jaya Dina Buana , in Surabaya, East Java. Workers say the company uses a large network of companies under pseudonyms to conduct its business.
When Mongabay visited the fish warehousing complex, a worker offered to help with shipping, including taking care of documents from the Quarantine Office.
Another way to avoid detection is to use ‘forwarders’ provided by companies that ship products overseas.
Ardiyansah, who buys stingray skin for handicrafts in Rembang, Central Java, sends 200-300 pieces of stingray skin to China by courier service almost once a month. This practice further complicates efforts to control trade.
Mukhlis Kamal, a shark and ray researcher from the Bogor Agricultural Institute, said that Indonesia’s territory is so vast that it allows for the illegal shark trade. This situation, he said, was exacerbated by inadequate supervisory personnel.
Susanto, Supervisory Staff of SDKP Lamongan, dismissed accusations of weak supervision. According to him, four of his personnel carry out routine and incidental surveillance. Routine supervision, he said, in the warehouses of permit holders.
These inspections are not without caveats. Before it is carried out, the person concerned receives a letter regarding the inspection plan. “While incidental inspections are only when there are reports from the public.”
In practice, as observed at several ports visited by Mongabay , sharks and rays are freely traded, even by traders who do not have SIPJI or SAJI permits, or letters of recommendation for the species being traded.
Pufferfish Describes the Ancient River on Belitung Island
That morning, Suhandi , went to pick up his bubu. Slowly he rowed the canoe, splitting the calm water that was starting to rise. Swirling agilely, breaking through the dense rasau plants [ Pandanus helicopus ]. This is a plant that dominates Tebat Rasau, a swamp landscape in Lintang Village, Simpang Renggiang District, East Belitung Regency, Bangka Belitung Islands Province.
Upon arrival at terubuk [a collection of rasau plants], the traps were examined. Many fish are trapped, but there is one that attracts attention, namely the puffer fish which immediately swells when held.
“This is what we are looking for, safe to hold and consume because it is not poisonous like puffer fish in general,” said Suhandi, end of June 2023.
Since long time ago, the people of Lintang Village have been used to processing this puffer fish. Only for personal consumption, not the main catch, and not for sale.
According to Nasidi, Head of the Tebat Rasau Indigenous Community, the largest pufferfish ever caught weighed up to one kilogram, when inflated it was about two adult fists.
The freshwater pufferfish population in Tebat Rasau is still abundant because the ecosystem is still intact, and there are no predators who dare to eat except humans.
On the other hand, the puffer fish, which dares to prey on the children of the toman or cork fish. Both mother and baby puffer fish can often be seen among kumpai [a type of river algae], especially during high tide. This coincides with the season when fish from downstream migrate to Tebat Rasau to spawn.
“Perhaps, this collection of kumpai is a place for puffer fish to lay their eggs as well as hunt. They prefer to wait for their prey among the kumpai and can remain silent for months. It sounds calm, but it swims fast and is aggressive when preying,” said Nasidi.
For information, Tebat Rasau, which covers about 8,040 hectares, is the headwaters of the Lenggang River, the longest [60.28 kilometers] and the largest [230-1,520 meters] river on Belitung Island. This river empties directly into the Karimata Strait.
Since 2021, Tebat Rasau has been designated as the Belitong UNESCO Global Geopark Geosite , and is home to hundreds of types of freshwater fish. The Tebat Rasau swamp ecosystem acts like a large pond that controls the water discharge of the Lenggang River.
Close to species in Borneo
Referring to the journal Keim et al., , fresh water puffer fish or pupper fish are members of the Genus Pao [ Tetraodontida e], spread in the Mekong River valley on the Indochina mainland to Sumatra.
Of the four species, only two species of freshwater pufferfish are non-toxic and edible, namely, P. bergii [West Kalimantan] and P. hilgendorfii [East Kalimantan]. What about the species in Tebat Rasau?
In terms of morphology, P. hilgendorfii has an elongated to ovoid body shape. The eye is slightly closer to the anterior end of the mouth than the gill slits, while its lower edge touches a horizontal line, which starts at the mouth slit and runs through the middle of the base of the pectoral fin [Popta, 1905].
Meanwhile, based on community information, the puffer fish species in Tebat Rasau are aggressive predators. This is in line with Nieuwenhuis  who noted information provided by the Dayaks that P. hilgendorfii was also more aggressive than P. bergii .
“Thus, until molecular data is available, the results of this study indicate that the taxon found in the Tebat Rasau River tends to be closer to P. hilgendorfii [East Kalimantan] than P. bergii [West Kalimantan],” wrote research by Aria Bimetal.
Why aren’t the species in Tebat Rasau closer to P. bergii [West Kalimantan], which is geographically closer to the Belitung mainland?
“So far information about the two species is very limited, until more collections are collected, it is assumed here that the two species may have lived together throughout Kalimantan and that P. hilgendorfii may also be found in rivers in West Kalimantan. It is not yet known how to find the way to the river in Belitung, which might have happened during the Pleistocene,” said the study.
Still in the same journal, it was explained that the Pleistocene river system in Sundaland had been reconstructed through island geology and hydrology studies which proved the existence of ancient rivers by Molengraaf and Weber , Molengraaff [1921, 1922], and Voris .
Most of these ancient rivers had disappeared under the Java Sea after the sinking of most of Sundaland at the end of the third Ice Age [11,000 to 10,000 BC]; so that only a few have survived to this day [Hall and Morley 2004], one of which is an ancient river in the Tebat Rasau Geosite.
During the Pleistocene there were at least two major river systems in Sundaland, and the ancient Tebat Rasau river was included in the eastern river system which includes most of the rivers and their tributaries in present-day Borneo.
While the western river system includes rivers in Sumatra to mainland Southeast Asia, including the Mekong River and its tributaries, but does not include rivers in Kalimantan.
Citing the IUCN Red List , a non-poisonous freshwater pufferfish species; Pao hilgendorfii and Pao bergii , with Data Deficiente /DD status . This results in unknown population sizes and trends, and the need for more information on species distribution, habitat preferences, uses, threat severity and conservation measures.