Raja Ampat 2012: Swimming with the Sharks

This is the eighth in a multi-part series chronicling the 2012 trip to monitor the health of coral reefs in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. This year, Conservancy scientists are traveling to Raja Ampat alongside colleagues from CI and WWF.

This post was authored by Purwanto, the Conservancy’s technical advisor in the Raja Ampat region.

We’re very fortunate to still be able to see sharks in Raja Ampat. Now, on the seventh day of our trip, we have seen 24 sharks of four different species in 10 of the 29 dive locations we’ve visited. We’ve dived near silvertip, gray reef, blacktip and—most frequently—the whitetip.

Today we dove in some extraordinary fish nursery grounds. As we prepared to dive, we saw four baby blacktip sharks playing near the shore, as if greeting us. On this dive, we also saw a number of other sharks, a large school of baby trevallies, snappers, parrotfish, fusiliers and many other juvenile fish. Locations like these are very important and must be protected by the local government and communities to ensure long-term fisheries in Raja Ampat.

Many people immediately imagine all that is frightening, dangerous and must be avoided when they hear the word “sharks.” While several types of sharks are dangerous, many of Indonesia’s reef sharks aren’t very aggressive and can be observed safely by divers.

And for many divers, sharks are big attractions. Research shows that sharks—along with manta rays—are the biggest lures for dive tourism, even more so than coral reefs and turtles. In several countries such as Australia, Palau, South Africa, the Maldives and the Bahamas, shark tourism creates more sustainable income than shark finning. In Phuket, Thailand, Shark Point—a spot for diving with sharks—is a very well-known and much-visited diving destination. In the Maldives, an archipelagic country very similar to Raja Ampat, shark-based tourism brings in more than 300 billion Indonesian rupiah (more than $30 million) each year.

Sharks are also very ecologically important because of their role as top predators. Many shark species prey on injured or sick fish, preventing the spread of illness among fish and marine biota. If sharks are completely removed from ecosystems, food chains become imbalanced; many studies show that a lack of sharks significantly lowers marine biodiversity diversity.

Shark populations in Raja Ampat continue to be threatened by the unsustainable and cruel shark fin trade. Fishing operations chop the fins off sharks, which are then tossed back into the sea, alive but fatally wounded. When shark populations are lowered, they take a long time to recover: sharks take 10 years to reach sexual maturity.

The Raja Ampat government and people recognize the importance of sharks to local ecosystems and the region’s long-term economic growth. Efforts to conserve sharks continue through protection programs and initiatives to ban shark fishing in Raja Ampat. We hope that these efforts will ensure the continued existence of sharks and preserve the benefits they create for the people of Indonesia.

Learn more about the Conservancy’s involvement in the game-changing Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security.

(First image: One of the team’s encounters with Raja Ampat’s shark population. First image credit: Purwanto. Second image: A diver observes a shark from a distance. Second image credit: Purwanto.)

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