For nearly three decades, Indonesia has led the world in the export of dried shark fins and other shark-related products, averaging over 100,000 tons of sharks and rays landed each year. However, as evidenced by this week’s announcement of the new species of “walking” shark, Indonesia has made great strides towards protecting these fascinating species in the last year.
The reversal from exploitation to conservation has been attributed to several factors. With the maturing of Indonesia’s economy there has been a tremendous increase in awareness of the shark and ray declines with the rising popularity of scuba diving. There is also a growing awareness within the government of the shark’s important ecological role in maintaining healthy fish stocks, as well as the economic potential of marine tourism. According to a recent study looking at global manta tourism, Indonesia ranks second as a global manta tourism destination, providing an estimated $15 million annually to the Indonesian economy.
Indonesia is also one of the world’s biggest users of social media. Using the popular “#savesharks” Twitter hashtag, celebrity conservationists have been raising conservation issues daily. A steady stream of thrilling scientific discoveries has also helped shaped the country’s changing view toward sharks and rays, seemingly bringing new shark and ray species to light each year.
The recent discovery of a new species of “walking” shark (Hemiscyllium halmahera) is one such example. Found off the remote eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera, the local government is excited to promote this newly-named endemic species. According to NBC News, this is the third species of walking shark in the past six years to be described from eastern Indonesia, highlighting the tremendous shark and ray biodiversity.
Discovery News adds that Hemiscyllium halmahera “is one of just nine known ‘walking’ sharks in the entire world.” All nine species of “walking” sharks have very limited ranges. For example, the newly-discovered species of “walking” shark is located only on Halmahera.
According to the AFP, the shark moves itself along the ocean floor as it searches for food at night. The shark grows to a maximum length of 30 inches and is harmless to humans.
Some of the recent commitments Indonesia have made include the creation of the first shark and ray sanctuary, announced in February. In March, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries hosted its first ever national symposium on shark and ray conservation, where the minister himself publicly announced that the country would be moving quickly to create regulations to protect threatened species.
Indonesian scientists and government officials, supported by a slew of NGOs including The Nature Conservancy and WWF, have been working to gather the scientific evidence to support such regulations. The first of these regulations, granting full protection to whale sharks was signed by the minister in June, Currently, the team is feverishly working to finalize further regulations on manta rays, three species of hammerhead sharks and oceanic white-tip sharks.