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Shark fisherman leading the way with shark research – Project Hiu

When you think of shark research and conservation you probably don’t think of shark fisherman! However, in Indonesia there is a group of shark fisherman not only helping, but leading the way when it comes to shark tagging, which is resulting in huge leaps forward in shark conservation. So why is this occurring and why are these shark fishermen wanting to HELP the sharks? Well, it all started a few years ago when an Australian shark conservationist and activist, Madison Stewart, went to Indonesia to document one of the biggest shark fishing trades in the world. Instead, Madison did the most unlikely thing a shark conservationist could do - she made friends with these shark fishermen. While often at war with each other, by turning foe into friend Madison achieved the one of the most powerful movements in the conservation world, and this is how Project Hiu was created.

Project Hiu is an organisation, created by Madison, that is working to transform an island community (the island of Gili Maringkik) with a population of 3,000, by supporting sustainable alternative incomes, which protects nature, deviates from men killing sharks, empowers women and provides greater opportunities to children. When Madison first encountered the famous shark market that her now ex-shark fisherman worked at, she had a change of perspective and saw a way she could effectively create change as an individual.

While it wasn’t her first time seeing dead sharks, it was her first-time seeing men whose next meal depended on those sharks lying dead on the floor. By choosing compassion over hatred, this allowed Madison to envisage a project to help both sharks and people, which later became Project Hiu. For the next few years, Project Hiu worked to replace shark fishing with tourism, as Madison hired those shark fisherman to take travellers out on their once shark-fishing vessel to experience the beauty of Indonesia. The crew took these customers to explore pristine coral reefs, surf undiscovered waves and even meet the rest of the shark fishing community on their island, a place where travellers had never gone before. As these trips became more and more successful, so too did the project, with Madison hiring more shark fisherman and their boats to captain and crew her trips, meaning less men fishing sharks. However, Project Hiu has recently gone further than any other shark conservation group and introduced a shark tagging and research program, led of course by the knowledge of the ex-shark fisherman.

Tagging sharks can be a complex undertaking that requires a lot of logistics and preparation (not to mention funding); however, it can provide vital information about the movements on highly migratory marine animals, such as tiger sharks. Currently speaking, there is no data on the movements of tiger sharks in Indonesia, and so areas of tiger shark migratory routes, breeding grounds or even areas or times when more shark activity occurs is still unknown. This can cause an issue with conservation efforts, as the more we know about a marine species, the better we can be at putting measures in to protect them!

So how did Madison achieve this? Firstly, she needed the help of the shark fisherman. As they had been fishing sharks, especially tiger sharks, for generations they have extensive knowledge about their behaviour that would be vital for this research. Their knowledge informed Madison and her crew to understand that the full moon creates an abundance of sharks, which makes targeting them at this time much easier. However, for a research project like this, you need more than knowledge, you need resources. In July 2022, Project Hiu received its first donation for the research and obtained 8 spot tags, which would show the movement and temperature of the sharks once deployed. The process of obtaining tags also involved applying for satellite tracking, creating online profiles for each tag, and prepping them with antifouling (a process that ensures the tags do not get growth on them that will harm and slow down the sleek shape of the sharks, which aids their travel). Permits and paperwork were also needed to conduct this research in Indonesia and legally publish work and research obtained. Time was also spent with the fishing community to establish contracts and prices for taking fishing boats to the areas that the sharks are located.

On September 9th 2022, the crew received the exciting news that the research permit had been approved, meaning that they had the ability to place 8 tags on tiger sharks in Indonesia. Once this was approved, the crew could start making plans, securing flights and visas for the research team and photographers, purchasing equipment needed, and physically getting the tags to Indonesia through customs.

Finally, it was time for the mission itself. On October 4th 2022, at 8pm, the team that included Madison, two scientist, two photographers and 11 shark fisherman set sail for the open ocean that connects to Indonesia to attempt something that has never been done before. While on the mission, every crew member had an assigned role to safely secure the shark so a tag could be placed. This involved a lot of training for the crew, especially for the fisherman who had never experienced being with a shark that they would need to secure and let go. In total, the crew were out to sea for nine days and returned being the first crew to ever tag tiger sharks in Indonesian waters. This will likely bring invaluable data on the movement of these tiger sharks, which can be used to better focus the efforts to protect important times or areas for the sharks. It does really have to be highlighted that without the shark fisherman themselves, this research would not have been possible. Once sufficient data from the sharks’ movement is collected (which is estimated in only a year from now), this information will be essential for Project Hiu, allowing future tourism ventures to occur around times that there is a high population of tiger sharks around, which would also be a time where fishing would have had the most impact. But it doesn’t stop there. Madison and the team at Project Hiu have also been working on a number of other projects, such as testing tourism sites where tourists (and shark fisherman) will be able to swim with the biggest fish in the sea, the whale shark; filming the largest fin drying operation in Indonesia, allowing the team a better understanding of how the trade operates; and sponsoring children at the local university, allowing these students to prepare for careers in tourism where they would have once turned to shark fishing instead.

There is no doubt that Project Hiu has made instrumental advancements with shark conservation, all of which could not have been made possible without Madison connecting with and forming this unlikely friendship with these now ex-shark fishermen. It really does show how one individual can not only create change but create a powerful movement.