Dolphins die for Shark fin Soup

Wednesday February 29, 2012
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Presently there is an on-going battle between the shark fin industry and conservationists. Below is another dark side to the shark fin trade that we rarely see.


Despite legislation that prohibits the killing of dolphins and whales, small cetaceans are still caught in Lombok, Indonesia. Though some are eaten, many of these dolphins end up back on the hook, as bait for sharks

The first dolphin of the day is offloaded


In late 2010 I received an e-mail from a contact about fishermen hunting dolphins and whales on the popular tourist Island of Lombok, Indonesia. As evidence, they included graphic images showing a family of spinner dolphins for sale at a fish market. Laid out on the ground, wedged between small walls, they are hidden from prying eyes.


A small pod of spinner dolphins

Indonesia laws are supposed to protect dolphins and whales but it was obvious from these images that legal protection was not working.

Another spinner dolphin 


In August of 2011, I headed to Indonesia to investigate. On the first morning I woke to the sounds of prayer at the local mosque, grabbed my camera and a notebook and headed down to Tanjung Luar, the largest fish market in Eastern Lombok. The smell was over powering. The crowd was a mix of tourists and locals.  I watched as the crew of two Indonesian longliners, tied up alongside each other, started dumping large fish over the sides into the shallow waters to be dragged into shore. I quickly made a list of species being offloaded. Scalloped hammerheads, thresher, mako, blue, silky, bull, tiger and oceanic white-tips sharks, manta and mobula rays, spinner dolphins and pilot whales. All coming off the same two boats, and not a tuna in sight.


Rows of sharks

The street market, traders buy the dolphin meat 

Though most assume these boats were after tuna, it’s more likely these vessels were targeting sharks for their highly prized fins which are then sold in restaurants across Asia. After asking around for a few hours I managed to find a fisherman who was willing to talk. It soon became obvious from what he had to say that dolphins were being caught and used to bait longline hooks to catch sharks. Those not used as bait were supplied to the dolphin meat trade with a good-sized dolphin fetching around one million rupiah or US$116.00. My fisherman contact stated that the boats were all returning from the top end of Australia, using Sumba in Indonesia as a base.


His words reinforced my own observations, adding to the growing evidence that Indonesian fishermen are using dolphin meat as bait to catch sharks. Back in 2005, Indonesian fishermen were reported to be using this practice in Northern Australia, according to Aboriginal sea rangers who are based 500 kilometers east of Darwin and regularly patrol the Arnhem Land coast by air. "We pulled up several hooks with dolphin meat in them. We also recovered 18 sharks and 30 other hooks baited with dolphin meat," says Gavin Enever, a co-ordinator of the Bawaninga Djelk sea rangers.


Later in 2006 an Indonesian fishing vessel was apprehended in North Queensland, Australia, by the Labor Party taskforce on illegal fishing. Dolphins and dugongs were found onboard being used as shark bait. In 2010 a video was presented to Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in Doha on how dolphins are captured and used as bait for the shark fin trade in Indonesia.


More recently, in May of last year, a video posted on the US-based ‘Earth Island Institute’ website shows an interview with a local fisherman in Flores, Indonesia describing how dolphins are captured using homemade bombs. He says the captured dolphins were then killed to be used for bait to catch sharks for their fins. 


“They use dynamite placed in beer bottles and throw them at dolphins” says the fisherman. “After dolphins got too weak, they captured them and tied their tails.” The video conclusively adds to the mounting evidence that this is a common practice, and a lucrative one at that. “They use them as baits for sharks as they needed sharks’ fins that could be worth one million Rupiah or USD$117 for one kilogram,” he says.


 Back at the market I continued watching the longliners unload. At one point the whole beach around me was covered in thresher sharks. Later a full-grown spinner dolphin, followed by a juvenile, was dumped in the water. But then, to make things worse, a badly decomposed pilot whale joined the carcasses. The boats had no gill nets onboard and as dolphins rarely get caught on longline hooks, preferring to take free schooling fish as food, it’s likely that these animals had been specifically targeted, killed by harpoon or homemade explosives. We visited the market 10 times from early in 2010 and in late 2011 and dolphins were landed 70 percent of the time.

Thresher sharks line the waterfront


Not surprisingly, in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia, officials appear to be unaware of what is happening on the ground.

A pilot whale is carried up to the market as international tourists take pictures. 


The director of fish resources at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in Indonesia, Agus Apun Budhiman,  was taken back when questioned on the matter.


“It is not true. How could that be? I have never heard of dolphins being hunted before,” he said at a recent press conference. Although it can be difficult to believe, the mounting evidence runs counter to what most believe is happening at sea. “Local people consider them, dolphins as man’s best friends, so they would not go after them, let alone eat or use their meat as bait,” he added.

In other parts of Indonesia, dolphins generate big tourism dollars. In the town of Lovina in the North of Bali, locals run trips to visit a pod of resident dolphins in a nearby bay. Dozens of boats head out each morning at sunrise in the hopes of seeing the acrobatic spinner dolphins in the wild. It is estimated that the boatmen operating in the community  receive, around USD 267,000 to USD 285,700 from annual admission fees  for their popular dolphin watching trips. Surely, with the right education this dolphin tourism model could be used in Lombok as well.

In January, last year, scientists suggested dolphins be considered the second- most intelligent species on earth after humans, and that they should be treated as “non-humans persons.” Studies into dolphin behaviour have highlighted how similar their communications are to those of humans. The researchers argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks, or to kill them for food, or by accident when fishing according to Lori Marino, a zoologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. In many parts of the world there is new legislation to protect sharks and ban the trade and possession of fins. Even in Asia, where demand for shark fins is increasing, campaigns to end shark fin dining are underway. Shark sanctuaries are being created around the globe from Palau in the Pacific to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean as well as Indonesia’s own Raja Ampat shark and ray sanctuary in the coral triangle. Recently, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd., parent company of The Peninsula Hotels, announced that it will stop serving shark fin at all its group operations, effective 1 January 2012.

Risso's dolphin

The scenes I witnessed that morning in Tanjung Luar fish market will be with me for a long time but, as I finished my Indonesian trip, I spent a day out on the water with wild dolphins. The surface was like velvet, not a breath of wind to cause a ripple, my feet hung over the side of the boat. Dolphins played in the wake. Curiously they tried to make a connection, touching my feet and hands from time to time, just for a moment.

Lombok, Indonesia now has an international airport, more and more tourists will head to the Island paradise, but killing of dolphins has to become something of the past.


A quote by Mahatma Gandhi came to mind; “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.

I hope that Indonesia can make the changes that desperately need to be made to protect the dolphins of our oceans.  ENDS