When Paul Friese moved from Hawaii to Bali with the intention of starting a cage diving business, he had some high expectations of large shark populations and pristine, calm waters. Both didn’t turn out quite as expected. The waters off the shelf of Nusa Dua were rough, and the fishermen had caught wind of the high numbers in the area, so there were no longer many sharks…

In early 2011, while pondering his next move with a few beers as the sun went down, Paul hit upon the idea of a shark nursery. This was drawn from his experiences of seeing dead baby sharks in the trash at the fish markets, as well as hearing tales that local fishermen would just kill any shark they caught – regardless of whether or not they sold the fins and meat – because they didn’t know what else to do with them. While one could be disillusioned at such experiences, it made Paul all the more determined to help make some sort of change in a country dubbed the top “shark catcher” in the world (labelled such in a 2011 analysis by TRAFFIC and the Pew Environment Group).

Paul proceeded to spread the word, and soon he was responding to calls from fishermen who had caught baby sharks in their nets. With a small financial incentive – but certainly not enough to constitute a bounty – and by providing an alternative to killing them, Paul began to take sharks off their hands and place them into his rescue centre. Soon enough, many fishermen were just leaving sharks at his door as gifted by-catch, and many others would receive no compensation because of the logistical cost of taking the sharks over to the centre. He also began contacting restaurants with shark aquariums, encouraging them to give him the confined creatures – which, surprisingly, many of them were keen to do. The sharks could be unruly prisoners, splashing water in their clients’ dishes…

At his centre, the sharks are released when they become large enough to fend for themselves (blacktips are released at 0.8m, whitetips at 1m). Today, Bali Sharks has saved 240+ sharks, with 180 of them having been released into the wild so far. To keep afloat, Bali Sharks operates eco-tours as people are allowed to go and familiarise themselves with these creatures, and even swim with them.

shark fish release
Releasing a shark © Paul Friese

What motivated you to start a rescue centre for sharks?

I was under the impression all these NGOs were actually saving sharks: Helping to nurture their populations in a protected environment (e.g., babies saved from fishermen), and then releasing them into the wild again. They do a lot of things but in my mind it made sense that something like that would be one of their many programmes. To my surprise, none actually do. I figured that I’ll just do it and create a viable strategy that makes sense.

The centre happened by situational accident as I was originally going to do a shark cage. But once news got out as to its whereabouts, the sharks would get fished out nightly and that’s how the rescue centre came about. A place to keep fishermen out. Sort of took off from there. When the sharks are healthy and large enough – and bear in mind many sustain injuries from when they were caught – they are released into marine protected areas in offshore islands. We’ve now saved 240 sharks.

shark injuries
Many of the sharks have sustained injuries © Paul Friese

Tell me about some of the programmes and initiatives by Bali Sharks.

One of the recent things is mercury testing. This really seems to be a viable opportunity in educating government agencies and consumers, and may lead to some favorable decisions in curbing demand.

Fortunately for me, the Bali Seafood Lab is nearby. They were startled when I brought in shark fillets, but after the test results they were pretty grossed out. [The results were published in February and reveal mercury levels above regulatory limits of 0.5/1.0 ppm (parts per million); see downloads]. I figure that later in the year I will expose the results with news agencies with the same purpose – to gross out consumers who can then put pressure on the protection agencies to make responsible decisions for people’s health, instead of covering it up… “business as usual”. Worse comes to worse, at least consumers will know what is really in their “fish-n-chips”.

Black Tip Release
"Use our own unique talents to help make the ocean (and the rest of the world) a better place" © Paul Friese

What sort of impact do you think the test results will have, and how useful will they be in influencing the legal and educational sphere?

I have yet to share it here in Indonesia, but I will with the Ministry of Fisheries, a few consumer groups, and possibly celebrities, who can make short clips explaining the results. I’m going to have to sort much of it out myself though. I’ve contacted fairly progressive groups like Conservation International and WildAid, among others, about doing an educational research campaign on the mercury stuff, but they haven’t been too keen so far.

As for legal action? Indonesia is too corrupt; they will just accept money from the violators to bury the results. Singapore claims their shark product is from sustainable sources in Europe and the USA. [Singapore’s shark fin traders at the Maritime and Port Authority have made this claim according to WWF Singapore.] I recently went to Jurong and Tekka markets – the sharks that are going into local consumption are obviously coming from fisheries in neighboring countries, so we can only imagine it is tainted with neurotoxins. Once the connection is researched a bit more, it will be time to get answers from the government agencies that seem to be lame ducks giving irresponsible answers to consumers.

[WWF Singapore recently debunked the claim about Singapore getting shark product from sustainable sources. According to Singapore’s own trade data, Spain, Namibia, Uruguay, Hong Kong and Indonesia are the top import markets – all of them do not have sustainable shark fisheries.]

A fisherman en route to the centre with a couple of sharks © Paul Friese

What are some initiatives that Bali Sharks have undertaken on the supply side?

We did some airline strategies to get Garuda Indonesia, Philippine Airways, Thai Airways and others to stop shipping fins and manta gills. We also sent a correlation risk report to UPS regarding shareholders and the US Foreign Corruptions Act in which they also banned shipping (airline companies trading on US stock markets might have been in violation of the Corruptions Act since most fisheries are involved in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, IUU).

I have a bit of an economics background, so these distribution channels make sense for me to mess with. Ultimately, educating end user suppliers and disrupting distribution channels is all apart of the process that helps curb the demand for shark fin and meat.

In 2013, we caught wind of photojournalist Alex Hofford out of Hong Kong, who wrote a blanket letter and got positive results. Since we had Bahasa speaking staff, we consulted with him about letting us go after Garuda Airlines. I didn’t want to encroach on or claim his efforts, but he gave me his blessing to see what might happen. Over a 15 minute Deli Sandwich, I whipped up an online petition (at change.org) asking Garuda Airlines to stop shipping shark fins. In that weekend alone, they received over 2,000 emails asking them to stop. They figured that the only way they could stop the emails was to announce something. Sure enough, in the next week, WWF announced the CEO of Garuda as a newly appointed board member and praised them for stopping the shipping of shark fin. Kind of strange they didn’t announce it themselves, but we pushed them and Garuda made an official announcement a few weeks later.

white tip
Releasing a whitetip © Paul Friese

Have any of your activities led to arrests? 

I sent a lot of evidence to government agencies that led to arrests and tougher regulation. Content is king. There are anonymous ways of getting pictures, videos, and content into the right hands of the news agencies, social media, and correct government officials that can do something. You’re leveraging them by getting the news out to the public, forcing, exposing or even embarrassing them to create the changes.

Before 2014, none of this was available in Indonesia, but with Joko Widodo as President and Susi Pudjiastuti as the Minister of Fisheries, they are open to making changes. They don’t like to see videos on YouTube titled “Indonesia kills another endangered species” featuring the killing of a pregnant thresher shark and finning the unborn pups.

In 2013, while filming Benoa Harbour’s commercial fishery boats unloading catch, it appeared slaves were being taken onto the boats. We sent the footage to the news agencies who successfully investigated and began reporting it. Later, Ibu Susi sent the Navy, who boarded the first IUU suspected boat. They found the slaves; the captain proudly gave them 30 brand new Indonesian passports for the crew. Problem was that none of the crew could speak Bahasa; they were Malays, Pinoys, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Thais, etc. The rest is history. READ MORE.

sharks pens
The pens at the rescue centre where the sharks reside before release © Paul Friese

Let’s look at the bigger picture. What is the state of things now regarding shark trade/fishing in Indonesia?

During the last IUCN Conservation Congress in Honolulu, it was a shocker to find out what CITES [Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] determines to be an endangered species has no relevance to actual laws which are up to actual countries to make and enforce. Indonesia abides by CITES rulings on no fishing for endangered sharks, but there is no regulation. There is a black market going on with finning and illegal species due to lack of transparency, which Singapore is guilty of, too. Within the past 12 months, I have personally seen Indonesians kill several whale sharks (two actually during the World Ocean Summit held in Bali), threshers, hammerheads, makos, etc. While CITES determines what is endangered, there is a disconnect and it does not filter down all the way through countries to actual fishing villages. The fisherman “don’t get the memos,” they don’t read newspapers, they don’t have Facebook or smartphones for that matter. They are out there trying to survive, put food on their plates, send the children to school – it’s brutal for them. They will hunt anything they encounter. So there are several legal violations going on due to the transparency voids. IUU fishing methods are prevalent all over the world and I’m still not sure any countries are immune to that.

Despite the regulations and bans in place (like in Raja Ampat for some species), there is and there will always be a black market. But an additional reason to ban – and one that would be good on the educational front – would be the high toxicity levels in shark products. There needs to be consumer protection! Maybe this could be an angle to reduce the number of consumers, which would then force a reduction in sourcing/fishing for sharks.

In moving forward to a sustainable future, do you think it is realistic to get fisheries certified as sustainable by a third party. This is something WWF agrees with and they point to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as that certifying body. So far, I only think one has been certified – US fishery for spiny dogfish.

I’m not too familiar with the MSC, but it stands for progression. You’d think there could actually be sustainable shark fishing, but probably not with all the tech-advantaged ways to fish – long-lining, trawlers, purse seines – these decimate the numbers. As far as aqua-farming, it makes no sense because sharks take too long to turn over. I believe the Port Jackson sharks in Australia might be the closest example due to their regulations in place. Not sure if they are farmed. For me, with a background in economics and fisheries as a business, it doesn’t seem viable as reproduction takes too long. If MSC actually certifies a shark fishery, I would love to hear how they reached that. It would have to be pole and hand line caught for starters, which is doubtful…

Is there a final message you would like to impart to our readers?

Well, a great lady of inspiration taught me and others to use our own unique talents to help make the ocean (and the rest of the world) a better place. Hopefully, in some way, I fit under that, but I agree with the message. To add to it, as consumers, we make little decisions that actually have huge impact. Using one bottle, taking your own toothbrush instead of using the ones in hotels, etc. We have to sharpen skills as responsible consumers, that’s our challenge. Be progressive in your thinking and actions. By the way, it was Dr. Sylvia Earle that taught me that. She also told me to “keep fighting for our oceans!”

Sylvia Earle Paul Friese
Paul Friese with the lady of inspiration – Dr. Sylvia Earle © Paul Friese

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