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Video: New species of walking shark boosts conservation hope in Indonesia


A newly discovered species of shark that walks has been hailed as an “excellent ambassador” for conservation of marine animals.

The discovery of the bamboo shark, Hemiscyllium halmahera, in Indonesia has been announced at a time when the country’s government is simultaneously trying to boost income from eco-tourism and to reduce overfishing which has devastated shark and ray numbers in the region.

For the last there decades Indonesia has landed more than 100,000 tons of sharks and rays annually, on average, accounting for 10 to 13 per cent of the global catch and it is one of the world’s leading exporters of fins.

But in recent months ministers have increasingly recognised the need to conserve the remaining stocks and the value of eco-tourism – live manta rays, for example, have been calculated to each be worth up to US$1.9 million to the economy over their lifetime as opposed to $40-200 for an animal’s meat and gill-rakers.

Among the measures that have been taken are the creation over the last six months of shark and ray sanctuaries in two of Indonesia’s most popular marine tourism destinations, Raja Ampat and West Manggarai, and the establishment of and international symposium on shark and ray conservation.

Against this background the new species of walking shark is expected to play a role promoting the further protection of marine habitats.

“The new walking shark from Halmahera can serve as an excellent ambassador to call public attention to the fact that most sharks are harmless to humans and are worthy of our conservation attention at a time when their populations are extremely threatened by overfishing" said Ketut Sarjana Putra, executive country director of Conservation International Indonesia.

Mark Erdmann Conservation International’s (CI) senior advisor on the marine habitats in Indonesia, was one of the scientists involved in describing the new fish.

The shark can swim but likes to clamber over the ground as it hunts small fish and crustaceans to eat. Picture credit: Conservation International/Mark Erdmann

He said: “If you asked me a year ago about the long-term future of shark populations in Indonesia, I probably would have responded: ’Bleak.’

“In the 21 years I’ve been working in Indonesia, I’ve seen many of my favorite reefs stripped of their shark populations. Indeed, it has become quite rare to see sharks on most dives in Indonesia.”

However, he said the changing attitudes among the Indonesian authorities has left him more optimistic: “With all of these promising new developments, my assessment on the future of Indonesian sharks and rays has done an about-face from bleak to increasingly bright.”

H. halmahera is the third type of walking shark to be discovered in eastern Indonesian waters in six years and was found off a remote island, Halmahera. It was first photographed in 2008.

Indonesia boasts six of the nine known walking sharks and they have established themselves as a divers’ favourite. They can swim but when hunting they use their fins to walk over the corals and sea bed as they search for prey – usually small fish and crustaceans.

Indonesia is one of the biggest exporters of shark fins which are hugely popular in China when served as shark fin soup. Piture credit: Sonja Fordham

Fahmi, of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and one of the world’s foremost shark experts, said: “These animals are diver favorites with excellent potential to help grow our marine tourism industry.”

At Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Dr Sudirman Saad said the “tremendous diversity” of sharks and rays in Indonesia’s waters – there are at least 218 species – needs to be “conserved for future generations”.

He reaffirmed the government’s determination to keep shark sanctuaries and that regulations and management plans are being developed to protect threatened species.

“In addition to securing the long-term sustainability of our national fisheries, we have launched this initiative to prove Indonesia’s commitment to protect our marine biodiversity and ensure the long-term sustainable use of sharks and rays well into the future,” he said.

Agus Dermawan, the director of the ministry’s Marine Conservation Directorate, added: “Although we must be mindful of the fact that many of our coastal fishing communities derive significant income from shark and ray fisheries, there is a growing awareness in our country of the important ecological role that sharks play in maintaining healthy fish stocks and especially in the tremendous economic potential of shark and manta-focused marine tourism.”


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