By: Our Correspondent

The lowly reef shark, it seems, is not a very dangerous beast despite its menacing appearance. It grows to be anywhere from 5 to 10 feet in length, constantly hunting squid and shellfish as well as almost any other type of fish haunting tropical reefs.

They are also extremely easy to catch, sometimes swimming curiously up to divers and fishermen. As a result, they have been easy prey for those seeking to provide China with its gigantic and growing hunger for sharks’ fins as the country grows richer and sharks’ fin soup becomes a de rigueur dish at a growing number of banquets, according to Riyanni Djangkaru, the Jakarta-based editor of Divemag Indonesia, in an interview. And 15 percent of the world’s catch of sharks, Djangkaru says – more by far than from any other nation – come from around the 17,500 islands, most of them with teeming reefs, that make up Indonesia. Few other nations, she said, supply anything more than 1 percent of the catch.

“Indonesian sharks are mostly reef sharks, they are not aggressive,” Djangkaru said. “That is why Indonesia has the biggest shark-fin production in the world.” She swims with the animals regularly, she said. They play an important role at the top of the reef food chain pyramid, removing sick and weakened fish from the habitat, playing a vital part in the ecological balance of the reef. The world Wildlife Fund has called reef sharks one of the world’s most important species.

For a decade or more, the world has increasingly caught on to the devastation from shark-finning and made it a cause celebre, partly because of the gruesome practice by some fishermen who catch the animals, cut off their fins and drop them back into the sea to drown, although far more are caught in nets or on hooks.

Campaigns have been mounted in many countries to seek to stop the practice, which is regarded as not only cruel to the sharks but a real environmental danger. But not in Indonesia. At Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, one stall in fact sells sharks’ fin to travelers on their way out of the country. In the western Java city of Bandung, according to Djangkaru, the mayor, Dada Rosada, suggested publicly that Indonesians supplement their diets with shark meat.

According to a study for the Oceana Foundation, titled, Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks: “As top predators, sharks help to manage healthy ocean ecosystems. And as the number of large sharks declines, the oceans will suffer unpredictable and devastating consequences. Sharks help maintain the health of ocean ecosystems, including seagrass beds and coral reefs. Healthy oceans undoubtedly depend on sharks.”

And so far, although across the world other countries are increasingly outlawing shark-finning in their waters and restaurants and hotels have begun to drop sharks’ fin soup, Indonesia at this point isn’t paying any attention. In addition to supplying China and the Chinese diaspora, Djangkaru says, it has become fashionable to eat shark in Indonesia itself, Warungs, or small outdoor family-run restaurants, have begun serving shark steaks although shark is neither very tasty nor particularly edible.

“In Indonesian culture, they like something fashionable,” Djangkaru said. “In a lot of Indonesian cities, it’s trendy. You can also find grilled sharks, there are shark restaurants, in the rural communities, the little warung across the street, those kinds of habits, it is a trend that is now threatening our sharks.”

Djangkaru and her diving colleagues in Indonesia have become increasingly worried about the devastation to the country’s shark population. The diving industry in Indonesia is growing in numbers and clout because of the country’s vast numbers of islands, which make it a divers’ paradise. Diving tourism is growing as well. Divemag has been leading a campaign to try to educate Indonesians on the depredation to the environment that shark finning is producing – and, she says, to point out that sharks’ fin is basically tasteless. It is in fact questionable, she says, why sharks’ fin has become a delicacy, other than because of the taste of the broth, which has nothing to do with the shark’s fin. One Chinese friend posited that because the shark is regarded as the most powerful figure in the ocean, and because it is the fin that provides its motive power, Chinese believe eating the fin can confer strength and power.

According to a report by Mary O’Malley on the Birya Masr website, the Indonesian shark catch increased from 1,000 metric tons in 1950 to 117,000 metric tons in 2003. The value has skyrocketed as well. Of the 10 most-endangered species of sharks, Djangkaru and a colleague, Priska Ruharjo, recently told an Indonesian television talk show, every one swims in Indonesian waters. Across the planet, Ruharjo said, 99 percent of the world population has been wiped out, a figure that has been disputed by other authorities. Nonetheless, Ruharjo said, 32 percent of all shark species are endangered.

Others dispute these figures, saying the number of sharks killed for their fins is far smaller than advocates of outlawing shark finning say they are, and that banning the shark fin trade isn’t going to help much, since many countries such as Germany, France, Island and Australia have long killed the fish for their meat. The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies held a symposium in Singapore in February at which detractors said claims that 73 million sharks a year are killed for their fins are wildly exaggerated. Some put the figure at as low as 25 million – still a huge number of dead sharks.

“Let’s put the blame on Stephen Spielberg,” Djangkaro said, because of the popular producer’s 1975 blockbuster movie Jaws, which stirred revulsion against the animals. “People think sharks are dangerous, if you meet one you have to kill it before they kill you. All over the world, fishermen are fishing for shark fin.”

Although the biggest decline in sharks was found in shark species that tended to stay close to the shoreline, all sharks are at risk, according to O’Malley’s report, which says the Thresher, a deep ocean shark, has fallen in numbers by 80 percent since 1986, Great Whites by 79 percent and that Hammerheads face the worst calamity with an 89 percent drop from 1986 to 2000.

Shark fin exports actually peaked in the mid-1990s, and by 2006 had declined to about half the mid-1990s level, according to O’Malley’s study. That, she said, “certainly suggests a serious decline in shark populations.” As sharks have been depleted in the traditional fishing grounds in the western and central portion of the Indonesian archipelago, the pressure has moved to the east, including the waters of Raja Ampat, which she calls the richest and most bio-diverse marine environment on Earth.

The most important deterrent to the killing appears to be people who actually get into the water with sharks and discover that they aren’t killers, and that in fact when sharks attack people, Spielberg aside, they usually mistake them for seals or sea lions.

Today, eco resorts have started to appear in Indonesia, counteracting the reef shark destruction. According to O’Malley, blacktip reef sharks can be seen cruising across the lagoon in Raja Lampat, and recently were seen mating as tourists spent lots of money to watch. There is world class diving and many of the top sites in Raja Ampat are within a short boat trip. Misool Eco Resort, for instance, is now a luxury dive resort in a tropical paradise. But it’s also much, much more. The resort, she wrote, represents a model of conservation, sustainability and service to its host community. Perhaps shark-watching eventually will catch up with whale watching as a tourist pastime.