When we mention Lombok, do you immediately picture stunning white sand beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters? Spot on. But did you know there’s also a dark side to this beautiful island that involves shark fishermen as well as one of the world’s most notorious fish markets?
Having been in the writing industry for more than 11 years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing numerous people from various walks of life. I’m not exactly known for having an exceptional memory, but the interviews that stick are often the ones whose heartfelt dedication to their cause is palpable in their response and, of course, actions. Kathy Xu, founder of the ecotourism project The Dorsal Effect, is one of them.
After her first encounter swimming alongside a whale shark in Exmouth, Australia, in 2011, Kathy, previously a secondary school teacher for seven years, was instantly taken with the misunderstood creature. Soon after, she began to watch documentaries about sharks, and even started volunteering at Shark Savers Singapore to help raise awareness about shark conservation. But it was on the east coast of Lombok, in a small village called Tanjung Luar, where Kathy conceived the idea of The Dorsal Effect: “Once, I saw a post on Facebook where people were scolding the fishermen in Lombok, saying, ‘Hey, these fishermen are evil, they are cruel, they kill all the sharks, ’ and then they were posting pictures of the shark market. I thought, ‘Why not go down and take a book?’” Kathy recalls. “So I went down and talked to the fishermen. I found out that it’s not like they really want to do this (shark fishing); it just happens to be there for them to do and they thought they didn’t have any other alternatives.”
That was when Kathy decided to set up The Dorsal Effect in 2013, an ecotourism project in Lombok that runs conservation trips and encourages local shark fishermen to pursue an alternative form of livelihood by ferrying tourists for the conservation trips. Read on as she tells us more about The Dorsal Effect.
Is shark fishing especially high in Lombok, compared to other parts of Indonesia?
Kathy: The three main shark-exporting countries in the world are Indonesia, Taiwan and India. Indonesia has a few shark markets. I think the top two are Tanjung Luar as well as the one at West Java called Cilacap.
Could you tell us the beginning of how the Dorsal Effect started? Why and how did you choose shark fishermen in Lombok in the first place?
Kathy: My passion for sharks developed after my first encounter with a whale shark in Exmouth. And then I realised that every time I talked to somebody about sharks they would tell me, ‘Oh, sharks are so scary. They are evil. We should kill them, ’ and stuff like that. And that was not what I – that was not the experience that I had been having with sharks, so I wanted to dispel the notion that people had about sharks. And at the same time, I think after volunteering at Shark Savers for a while I figured there should be a way where we can run eco-businesses sustainably while trying to get shark fisherman to do another trade that would pay them more. So when I found out about Lombok and what was happening with the fishermen there I decided, ‘Hey, why not come in and try to see if I can create a business around that, and pay the fishermen better than what they can make off of shark hunting?’Is it a challenge to persuade the Lombok shark fishermen?
Kathy: Actually, persuading them was not the biggest problem. In fact, it was easy. So basically the idea for ecotourism really kind of came from them, and all I had to do was ask them, ‘Hey, okay, how much would you want to take in? How much can I pay you in order to make it attractive for you?’ We would come to an agreement, then they would start working for The Dorsal Effect. It really is an easier life for them – they don’t have to go out shark hunting for weeks; they can basically just do a one-day boat trip which pays them more than a few weeks out shark hunting. So, no, the persuasion isn’t hard.
I think the bigger challenge is making it a sustainable business, getting enough tourists coming so that the fishermen can see that, ‘Hey, this is a stable income, ’ and yeah, it really can steer them away from shark hunting.
How far away are you from your ultimate goal?
Kathy: I feel like this is a long journey. I guess when I first started it I was very ambitious in terms of wanting to convert not just Indonesia, but Taiwan and India all within three years. I think I am already hitting the three-year mark and Lombok is barely taking off. But if I were to look at it from another way after having done this for three years, I like the idea of having people come and then telling me that they no longer want to eat shark fin soup anymore, or even having school groups coming and learning so much more about the whole ecosystem of sharks and what happens to the sharks. Recently, I got a group of Singapore Management University students to Lombok and brought them to a shark processing plant so they could see for themselves the whole chain – from the shark market they are brought in, cut up, and then brought to the shark processing plant where their different parts are resold to different parts of the world. The experience really helped put things in perspective for the students.
Just now you mentioned that the sustainability of the business was a challenge. So is it still a challenge now?
Kathy: Yeah, it is. When the SMU students came down, they also did some interviews with the fishermen, who said, ‘Oh yes, we love doing this, the money is good, but it’s just not sustainable because we have maybe one trip a month, and when it’s bad season it’s like one trip per two months.’ However, at the same time, we also found out from the Wildlife Conservation Society that the number of sharks brought into the shark market has been decreasing, and the types of shark that they find and the size of the sharks are going down. The fishermen are saying that this is not viable either.
So regarding concrete plans, I do want to ramp up in terms of sales and marketing so that we have more numbers of trips going, especially with the school groups because then I can engage more fishermen at a given point in time. I’m also still trying to talk to Wildlife Conservation Society because they have been doing a lot of the groundwork in terms of taking data at the shark market and picking – they keep track of the shark landings at Tanjung Luar every single day.Is there any other island that you are targeting in Indonesia outside of Lombok?
Kathy: I’m hoping to be able to scout out Cilacap in West Java, where I heard there has a big shark market. But at the same time, as I talk to schools and try to offer them marine conservation trips to Lombok, they are also telling me that they would be interested in similar trips to Taiwan and India – two other countries I’m keen to bring The Dorsal Effect to. I am hoping to sort out the shark markets in Taiwan during the later part of this year.
As much as you love what you are doing, as much as you believe in your cause, are there moments where you wonder like if you could do this forever?
Kathy: I guess that question hasn’t crossed my mind. I know that I want to do this forever. There’s a part of me that isn’t sure if I am doing the right thing, if I am going in the right direction. I don’t know if I am actually saving enough sharks, so to speak. Sometimes I ask myself, am I making a positive enough difference on the environment or the local community there?
I still dive once in awhile, not as often as before. Every time I do encounter a shark while diving, it just feels very, very surreal and magical, and I guess that’s what keeps me going. I’m determined to want to see as many live sharks as possible and try to limit the number of sharks that can be killed.
What do you think of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and its education of viewers on sharks?
Kathy: Previously I used to think that Shark Week was a lot of hype, because they talk about things like megalodon (an extinct species of shark that lived around 23 to 2.6 million years ago), and they try to give people the impression that certain shark species might still be around and that they are scary. But I think that was more of the American slant, and I have been hearing that Shark Week is going to take on a more conservation-based slant this year and they are also going to focus more on Southeast Asia. I think that’s a good step forward.
In conjunction with the premiere of Shark Week on Discovery Channel, Kathy, who has been to the TV channel’s Singapore office to give inspirational talks on shark conservation, will be spreading her conservation message on Discovery’s Snapchat account (@DiscoverySEA), so do follow the account! Shark Week is now airing on Discovery Channel (Singtel TV 202 / Starhub Ch 422), from June 27 – July 1.