For our 2021 summer blog we had the opportunity to speak with Sihar Silalhi the Project Manager for Sawfish Indonesia. We were excited to learn more about Sihar as well as hear more about Sawfish Indonesia. With Sihar's passion for elasmobranch conservation, working with Sawfish Indonesia was a natural fit. The group has been making strides working with fishers in Indonesia and Sihar was able to share some of their preliminary findings with us!
Can you briefly explain to our readers how you got involved with Sawfish Indonesia?
Ever since I was an undergraduate student, I have had a special affinity towards elasmobranch conservation which led me to explore various ways that I can convey my interest after graduating. So I gathered a team to brainstorm about our conservation project idea that was meant to be applied to the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP). When we were discussing the species we would like to conserve, several species came up on the list. Some of them were manta ray, whale shark, short-fin mako shark, and other endangered charismatic elasmobranchs until we realized all of them had gotten plenty of concern from various parties so far. Then, it was brought to our attention that one group was barely highlighted in Indonesia even though the international concern for their conservation is rising fervently: the sawfishes. By the time we planned our conservation project, a very limited study about sawfish in Indonesia had been conducted. Not to mention that no single conservation NGO in Indonesia had focused on sawfish-specific conservation. This may have hindered sawfish from becoming arguably the most iconic elasmobranch group in Indonesia. They have been fully protected since 1999 but did not get the national concern they deserve. We scurried to learn more about sawfish and to create a conservation project proposal for our research. We were surprised when the announcement was up because the CLP chose us amongst only 19 projects worldwide they accepted in 2020. After participating in the training that the CLP team provided, my team and I went to the project site to implement our conservation project planning. So, this is how I got involved with Sawfish Indonesia.
|The Sawfish Indonesia team (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).|
Have you ever seen a sawfish in the wild? If so, can you tell us the story of this experience? If not, is there a particular species you would like to see one day and what would you say is the most difficult aspect of your research?
Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see sawfish in the wild which is kind of ironic. To save them, we must first find them. But finding them is the most difficult aspect of our research so far. Water visibility in Merauke is really bad that it is impossible for us to monitor the sawfish occurrence by using boat surveys or baited remote underwater video. It also has been known that we are about 50 years too late to be able to easily encounter sawfish right on the beach across the coastal region of Merauke. Many interviewees in our social research stated that there was an enormous number of sawfish back then in the 1970s. They used to be afraid to let their children played around the beach because of the sawfish. Now as fishing pressure has increased since then, local fishers think that the sawfish have found a new place to live around the Arafura Sea, somewhere just not on the coastal area or in the river. That is probably why the several traditional surveys using gill nets we have conducted around the coastal area have led to no results and we were unable to survey further offshore in the Arafura Sea because of the high cost of boat rentals. Seeing them alive in the wild is something I would love to desperately experience one day.
|Sawfish Indonesia survey and monitor of sawfish occurrence with the local sawfish conservation ranger (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).|
Can you share one of your favorite sawfish field stories with us? It can be anything from an interaction with a fisher or just a really crazy day in the field.
I would say holding a dead-landed narrow sawfish for the first time is my favorite sawfish field story. I know it might sound terrible, and actually, that was what I precisely felt back then. But please hang on until you have heard the story. So, there was a fisher who unintentionally caught seven juvenile narrow sawfish in two days of a fishing trip. He then landed all of them at a fishing company in Merauke that works as a fishing landing port as well. The company did not accept the sawfish to be landed there as they knew there is a law against it. So they hurried to contact a local government fishing agency who later called us and asked whether we would like to go with them to investigate the situation. I remember it was the same day when I knew our environmental DNA research had not yet succeeded to detect sawfish presence. I was really upset that day until our team was invited to investigate the recently landed sawfish. Ironically, it brings me joy to hear the news. After months of researching sawfish in Merauke, finally, I’d be able to see a sawfish and hold it with my own hands. But then my feelings started to mix inexplicably. I started realizing that this was quite a lot of sawfish caught in a short time and then I started imagining the number of sawfish that got captured every day but did not land here. I knew by scientific data and general information that the main global threat to sawfish is bycatch, but up until then this was just like a piece of normative information to me. That very moment, I experienced it and have a reflection on it. I also realized that there might be a lot of fishers out there who were not aware of the legal protection laws about sawfish and were not trained to release sawfish properly. This moment fueled me with inexhaustible enthusiasm to do what we must in Indonesia to protect one of the most threatened elasmobranch groups in the world.
|My first time to see and hold a sawfish (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).|
Have fishers in your area been receptive to working with Sawfish Indonesia? Why do you think they have/have not?
I must say that it depends on the individual. We have some cooperate fishers who have been receptive to our works and some have just not. Many factors could lead to this situation, and the main factor is the context of the individuals which somehow drives their attitudes towards the conservation of sawfish. A group of Papuan fishers, which have now become the first local sawfish rangers in Indonesia, expressed a golden statement. They agree that sawfish must be protected in any practical way to make sure their children have not only heard of sawfish, but they hope their children will be able to meet a live one someday in the future. This kind of attitude is driven by many things, and one of them is culture. Papuans are well known for their sense of pride in something that belongs to them, like language, tradition, lifestyle, and their natural resources including sawfish. Therefore, it drives them to be involved in our work to protect sawfish that live in their area. We rarely find this kind of attitude from commercial fishers who usually tend to work in industrial scale fishing and are highly affected by globalization which makes them more money driven without giving concern towards threatened marine species. But I also realize sometimes it’s also a situational problem instead of merely a people problem.
|Interviewing local fishers about their knowledge of sawfish in Merauke (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).|
Do you all have any preliminary findings that you are able to share or new projects that you have started working on?
In the past 5 months, our team has performed preliminary studies in Merauke, Papua Province, Indonesia, gathering fisher’s ecological knowledge data about sawfish using a combination of purposive random sampling and in-depth interviews. The results are stunning: the Arafura Sea is arguably the last viable habitat for the sawfish populations in Indonesia as sawfish bycatch has been occurring since the 1950s. Yet, the accidental catches of sawfishes from various scales of fisheries in the Arafura Sea are high and the current fishing dynamics show a tendency of decreasing their populations. More than half of the fishers we have interviewed (62%) stated that sawfish bycatch is less frequent than in previous years and as many as 61% also expressed that the number of sawfish bycatch is decreasing from previous years. It is obvious that national regulation alone is not enough to ensure their survival. Sawfish populations in the Arafura Sea demand an international concern to prevent future local extinction. We also confirmed the previous existence of four sawfish species occurring in Indonesian waters as we have found the rostra of green sawfish, dwarf sawfish, largetooth sawfish, and narrow sawfish from museums and individual collectors. More comprehensive research needs to be taken to validate this current existence as many believe that there is a strong indication one of four sawfish species is locally extinct in Indonesian waters (Yan et al. 2021).
|The longest green sawfish rostrum we have found in Merauke (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).|