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A Fish Full Of Dollars
Sharks are a vital component of our complex marine environment. Without these apex predators, this ecosystem risks falling out of balance and may ultimately collapse.
Worldwide, fishing is pushing many species to the brink of extinction. This film examines Indonesia’s role as the number one shark fishing nation in the world. In Tanjung Luar, rural Lombok’s biggest fish market, sharks are a targeted species, where despite worldwide trends shifting away from shark finning, the trade persists. However, as shark populations decline, fishermen are forced further afield every year to satisfy the hungry demand of the Chinese and world market for shark fin soup.
Shark fin soup, a cultural symbol of prosperity and good fortune, is traditionally served at Chinese New Year celebrations, banquets, and weddings. WildAid says “For every Hong Kong wedding, 30 sharks must die”. Hong Kong and Guangzhou are major hubs for the trade, and despite past reports of falling demand, as a consequence of large-scale public campaigns launched by environmentalists and animal rights advocates, recent surveys show a surprising amount of shark fin is still being consumed.
Wild Aid have a simple message “When the buying stops, the killing can too”. The price of the life of a shark is getting cheaper by the year. The price of shark fins has fallen dramatically, but the fishing has not stopped.
Mantas and mobulas face similar harrowing circumstances. They are fished primarily for their gill plates, to be used in unproven cures for a wide range of illnesses, even cancer. These new and profit-driven “alternative medicines” are touted as traditional cures, however it is notable that even official Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners do not support this trade.
Manta flesh is nearly inedible and without the value of the gills for spurious remedies, it is unlikely that fishermen would target them. However, despite law changes banning the fishing of mantas in Indonesia, some fishermen driven by fast profits, still consider the risks worth taking.
“A Fish Full of Dollars” explores the effects of the depletion of shark and manta species in the Lombok area, on both the lucrativeness of future tourism and the daily lives of local people, who have depended on the fruits of the seas for generations. What will happen when this resource is exhausted completely?
Tanjung Luar is a village filled with contradictions – riotous colour and charismatic people, living on the poverty line in squalid conditions. They are struggling to live a comfortable life, but appear to live it happily.
Around 5,500 people live in this small, cramped community.
This is a place with no running water and no internet, simple food dependent on the local fishing catch… and everybody knows everybody. Strangers are welcomed, and followed by children like the pied piper, curiosity overcoming their apprehensiveness.
It is also a place where the smell of death lingers everywhere, regulation of fishing laws is intermittent and corruption is rife.
Unfortunately, fishermen and their families are uneducated, with little hope to fight their way out of this cycle. They spend their entire lives doing the same mundane jobs. What hope is there for the next generation if the ocean’s stores are depleted?
There are laws protecting some species of sharks and rays in Indonesia, including the manta ray, whale sharks and leopard sharks. International protection agency CITES recently added Thresher sharks, Silky sharks and Mobula rays to its Appendix II, which, although not banning the trade of these species, offers increased protection and regulation through supervision and accountability.
However, both lack of law enforcement and corruption are major obstacles to the protection of sharks and rays in Indonesia. Local fishermen take a very small percentage of the revenue from shark and manta fishing, while large scale traders in Surabaya and Sumbawa walk away with big money, and have a vested interest in maintaining trade routes.
However, as international pressure mounts, airlines and shipping companies are gradually responding to the outcries. Recently, in early 2017, Air China banned the shipment of shark fins, a huge win in the battle to save sharks. However, FedEx, China Airlines, Lion Air (a local Indonesian airline) and numerous others, still actively participate in the shipment of shark fins.
The trade of banned species in Indonesia is a complex issue with many financial stakeholders. There is no simple solution to this problem, but we need to find a way to stop shark and manta fishing as soon as possible, if we are to preserve the environment for future generations.
Some conservation organisations have begun to take a more proactive approach to solving the problem. The Dorsal Effect, set up by Chinese Singaporean citizen Kathy Xu, provides alternative employment to fishermen as captains and guides of snorkel tour boats, allowing fishermen a much safer and more comfortable lifestyle, with a more stable income. Bali Sharks rescues live juvenile sharks caught as by-catch by local fishermen, and releases them within the Marine Protected Area of the Gili Islands, near Lombok.
A personal note from the filmmaker: Behind the scenes
“A Fish Full of Dollars” started with just a single visit to Tanjung Luar’s fish market as part of an excursion organized by the Gili Eco Trust. I really didn’t know what to expect. When I saw the extent of the market, the numbers and variety of sharks and other rays, and even mobula and a juvenile dolphin, I was dismayed that creatures I was so excited to see underwater were lined up before me in a gruesome parade. It horrified me that this was happening so close to where I lived and worked in a close knit diving community. I felt I had to do something to try and make people aware of what was happening.
Although filming the sharks and rays being butchered was heartbreaking, I forced myself to turn off my emotional reactions and focus on the job of filming. It was only when I began to edit and had to repeatedly watch scenes of sharks being finned, gill plates being cut from rays, and the carcasses being butchered, that emotion surfaced… tears rolled down my face while I worked.
Although I made a short film after that first visit, I felt that I had only scratched the surface of a very complicated issue and felt compelled to continue. I returned twice more for additional footage of different species, as well as interviews with local fishermen, a buyer, and a fisherman who had converted to become captain of a snorkeling tour boat with the Dorsal Effect. Four years and thousands of hours later, “A Fish Full of Dollars” was born.
Although most local people at the market in Tanjung Luar are more than happy to talk to me, providing I show respect for them and their culture, and in fact are often curious about me and why I am there, there were a couple of occasions where filming became difficult or even impossible. When we discovered a dolphin, thrown over a sea wall in an attempt to hide it from cameras, we were quickly surrounded by local people who demanded we stop filming. Some fishermen would speak to us off camera but refused to be filmed. Upon being informed we were at the market waiting for an interview, the fisheries officer simply did not show up. We waited for several hours and then gave up.
My most lingering memory of the market, is the smell of a mixture of fish, blood, guts and rotting flesh, which can only be described as the smell of death. It lingers on your palate and makes it hard not to feel queasy. It gets into your clothes and into your skin and hair, and takes hours of scrubbing to get out. Over a year later my camera bag still smells of it.
My other indelible memory is of the people. Every year you see the same people, in exactly the same place, doing exactly the same job. Day after day, year after year. Yet they appear to be essentially happy, smiling and laughing often, despite appalling living conditions, and seemingly monotonous daily life. The children run and play in the polluted sea and mud, as any fortunate western child might play in a grassy park playground. This is simply normal life for the people of Tanjung Luar. They know nothing else, and have no opportunity for any alternative lifestyle.
So, although Tanjung Luar is a horrifying place to my western sensitivities, and my heart full of tender spots for sharks and rays, “A Fish Full of Dollars” exposes the humanity of fishermen simply trying to make a living and feed their families. It highlights the many complexities in this issue whose participants have compelling stakes. We need to act to provide fishermen with education and alternatives before there are no sharks left to be fished, and it is just too little too late, a devastating outcome for the ocean and the people whose lives depend on the sea. There is a lot more to this story than simply some fishermen doing an evil trade in shark fins.