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Meet The Woman Turning Shark Fishermen Into Ecotourism Guides

Kathy Xu, founder of The Dorsal Effect

Indonesia sits at the centre of the Coral Triangle; a marine area covering the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. Within this area, there are over 500 species of reef-building corals, which nurture turtles, dugong, whales, fish and other animals. With this in mind, Indonesia should be showcasing one of the most diverse collections of sharks across the planet. Yet, it doesn’t.

Indonesia is one of the top 3 shark fishing nations in the world, thanks to the high demand for shark meat and shark-fin soup across Asia.

While sharks have long been feared by mankind, the reality is that sharks have much more reason to be scared of us. Human activity has led to more than a quarter of shark species around the world facing extinction. In fact, it’s estimated that 73 million sharks are wiped out every year – sometimes, shark fins are even sliced off at sea, and the body dumped back into the water.

Shark fish market in Lombok
Shark market in Lombok. Photo by Caroline Pang.

Introducing The Dorsal Effect

The Dorsal Effect is an ecotourism project that offers a unique opportunity to get off the beaten track and enjoy a snorkel tour in Tanjung Luar, a little-visited yet beautiful corner of Lombok, Indonesia.

This isn’t just any snorkel tour, though: the key mission of The Dorsal Effect is to aid the conservation of sharks by converting shark fishermen into ecotourism guides.

Your guide will be a former shark fisherman, and he will take you out into the ocean to explore the coral reefs, beaches and coves of the area. You’ll learn about the history of shark hunting in the area and see some spectacular marine life, while knowing your tourist dollar is going towards protecting Lombok’s shark population.

Meet Kathy Xu, Founder of The Dorsal Effect

In 2013, a high school teacher named Kathy Xu was inspired to start The Dorsal Effect, after learning about the shark fishing industry and the demand for shark fin soup. I caught up with Kathy to ask her more about shark conservation and what inspired her to start The Dorsal Effect.

1) What can you tell me about the importance of shark conservation in Indonesia? Why do sharks need protecting?

Indonesia is one of the top 3 shark exporting countries in Asia. However, having said that, I do acknowledge that given the geography and demography of the peoples there, shark fishing became a natural source of work to turn to back in the day when demand for shark fish soup was higher. What I do like about Indonesia in the recent years, is that the government bodies have started to work closely with NGOs in the realm of marine conservation and science, such as Wildlife Conservation Society, in order to use data science to back policy decisions, and that is a good thing.

I don’t think sharks alone needs protecting, I think the whole ocean is in distress and we really need to be more mindful about our choices and how much we are consuming or what we are putting into the ocean. It is dire times indeed and I fear an impending collapse of the ocean ecosystems.

2) Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Haha I am just an average girl who used to be a high school teacher for about 7 years of my life (the kind that tried to sneak in environmental and animal welfare type documentaries, during lessons, to get the students to feel something for the oceans, nature and wildlife) before I decided that maybe I could step out of this and try to take off a business that focusses on providing alternative livelihood for shark fishermen.

Kathy Xu, founder of The Dorsal Effect
Kathy Xu, founder of The Dorsal Effect. Photo by Caroline Pang.

3) What inspired you to start The Dorsal Effect and how does it help protect sharks?

After seeing a Facebook post that went viral on my feed with the photos of fishermen in Lombok cutting up the sharks caught and landed at the fish market (really gory and bloody photographs) and seeing how everyone was quick to make scathing comments and scolding the fishermen with such vitriol behind the comfort of their computer screens, I got curious and decided to go to Lombok to see and find out from these fishermen what shark fishing was about for them.

The fishermen did not have Facebook accounts and I really felt like sometimes social media can be a place for the privileged to vent angrily without actually knowing the entirety of the situation. I spent some time sitting at the fish market and chatting up the fishermen over cigarettes and coffee and learnt more about their side of the story. Bottom line is, the fishermen did not intentionally choose to kill sharks for a living, it was a matter of living near the ocean and being brought up as seafarers hence catching anything that would bring in the buck for feeding the family.

After talking to them at length, they shared about how some parts of the fish market were really nice for snorkelling and that was when I asked them if they would be willing to take tourists to these nice snorkel sites if I would pay them better than what shark hunting pays. They said yes and there was no looking back for The Dorsal Effect. I even started crafting 4-5 marine conservation service and science trips for schools, so that they could learn more about the ailing oceans beyond the shark problem.

Snorkelling with The Dorsal Effect
Snorkelling with The Dorsal Effect. Photo by Caroline Pang

4) What can tourists and the general population do to aid shark conservation?

I think sometimes we get so mired in the shark fin issue that we forget that we may be eating shark meat when we think we are eating fish. For example, gummy sharks have been used for fish and chips but no one makes as much noise about shark meat as they do about shark fin soup.

Different species of sharks have different rates of fertility and fecundity and we should not see them as a whole altogether. At the end of the day, I hope people will ask more questions about their seafood sources and pressure their governments to make policy decisions with regards to seafood catch and consumption, based on science-driven work and better knowledge. Of course, they can also travel sustainably and responsibly with companies that promote alternative livelihoods for shark fishermen, like The Dorsal Effect.

Snorkelling in Lombok with The Dorsal Effect
Snorkelling with The Dorsal Effect. Photo by Caroline Pang

Thank you for reading! If you found this post useful, I’d be grateful if you would consider using the affiliate links below when planning your travels. I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. This will help me to keep this blog running. Thanks for your support – Lauren.

Hotels – Booking.com
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