I started diving about 20 years ago during a military posting to the dustbowl of Djibouti located in what is often called the Horn of Africa. Seeing my first shark, a white tip reef shark, lying motionless on a sandy shelf -- it burst my (media-fuelled) preconceptions. As I edged closer I could see the small pits in its snout, the gentle rise and fall of its head as it sucked water over its gills. Closer still I could see the small needle-like teeth lining its maw and its almost catlike eyes moving, watching me. Were these the ‘razor-sharp knives’ that would tear me to pieces if I inched closer? My question was answered with a flick of the tail and a flurry of blurred motion, an underwater sandstorm which, when settled, revealed that the monster I thought I was about to encounter had decided to abandon its ledge and leave me hanging, confused.

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Once my military service was finished, my travels took me diving around the world. I swooped with manta rays in the reef channels of Micronesia’s Yap Island. Using a reef hook in the current-ravaged waters of Palau, I hung out with majestic reef sharks. I smooched with swarms of blacktips on South Africa’s Aliwal Shoal. I snorkeled with whale sharks and guitar sharks just outside of the surf breaks on South Africa’s border with Mozambique. And in all of this time, I also became more and more aware of the ever-increasing signs of the shark fisheries, predominantl, for the fins that are the main ingredient in shark-fin soup. But in time, I also also noticed a soaring demand for gill-rakers, the bony processes used by manta and mobula rays to sieve food from the water (used as a sought-after ingredient in health tonics).

Having spent the last few years on the island of Bali in Indonesia, I was driven to investigate the shark fisheries here. The region has some of the richest and most vibrant coral reefs on the planet, from the mucky critters of Lembeh Island in North Sulawesi to the clouds of tropical fish in the northern confines of Raja Ampat in Indonesian Papua. This nation of 17,000 islands should serve as a beacon of hope for the world’s dwindling shark population – and there should be numerous locations for tourists to recreationally dive with a diversity shark species. But sadly, this is not the case. Instead, Indonesia ranks as the world’s leader in shark-fin exports to the consumer hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong.

To clarify, shark finning refers to a specific fishing method that involves the deliberate removal of a shark’s fins whilst the fishing vessel is at sea. The shark, often still alive, is then dumped back into the ocean to die. I wanted to see for myself if local fishermen were engaged in finning specifically to supply this cruel and wasteful trade or whether the fins were taken from a full carcass that is then fully utilized to feed the local population.

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Tanjung Luar, Lombok Island's largest fishing market, is already bustling with activity at dawn.

To get a better sense of the local fishery I decided to head east from Bali and grabbed a flight to the neighboring island of Lombok. I was headed to an infamous village on the eastern shores of the island and the site of its largest fish market: Tanjung Luar.

Entering the market, the first thing that hits you is the stench. Fish, dirt, faeces (animal and human, given the sight of the open sewers) and a feint smell of ammonia. I passed through a throng of sellers and buyers from the surrounding villages, as they haggled over prices for the astounding diversity of displayed produce. Morey eels, stingrays, eagle rays, trevally jacks, marlin, tuna and a vast supply of octopus and squid, all laid out in the rising temperatures of an Indonesian dawn.

A scrawny man, middle-aged and toothless, gesticulated with a bony finger to another larger building: Ikan Hiu besar. Rough translation: ‘large sharks’). I’d found my target. Approaching the open-sided warehouse, I could see a small beach on the other side and a gathering crowd of spectators. A thirty-foot wooden vessel, with no identifying markings, was in the process of being offloaded. One after another, sharks were being dumped into the shallow waters. Tiger, hammerhead, bull, mako, thresher and reef sharks, a line of porters ferrying them to shore and onto an array of hooks attached to looped ropes. Bamboo poles were then fed through the hoops and the animals were lifted unceremoniously to the processing shed.

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With the help of hooks and bamboo poles, a bull sharked is hoisted towards the processing shed.

For four days I watched, photographed and filmed the time-honed efficiency with which the animals were processed. Hardest to watch where the species I was seeing first time in my life: wobbegong sharks, zebra sharks, bonnethead and guitar sharks … all dumpe into piles on the muddied floor, waiting to be processed with a jaw-dropping efficiency.

I timed a tiger shark being unloaded from a boat. Processing floor: two minutes. From there I stopped the clock. Two hours later when the buyers had haggled their prices, this particularly magnificent female shark, perhaps three and a half meters long, was sold for the princely sum of US$1,500. Once the price was set the processors moved in. I restarted my clock. First to go were the fins, thrown onto a collective pile in the middle of the floor. Next the animal was opened and the guts removed. Sectioned completely in two, the shark’s meat was then separated from the skin (which was left in the sun to dry, to be used later as low-quality sandpaper). Time to fillet: around six minutes. The meat was then weighed and placed into plastic tubs, which were labeled, loaded onto trucks and shipped out to restaurants in the immediate vicinity. From majesty to mincemeat in some ten minutes.

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Once sliced from the carcass, the fins are thrown into a collective pile on the market floor.

It was a heartbreaking sight. But here’s the catch: this was not shark ‘finning’. These fishermen were not solely after fins. Instead, the fins were an additional, bonus body part from an animal that was, short of its jaw and eyes, to be used in its entirety. And yet, unless you witness the process yourself, it’s easy to get the wrong idea. Occasional iPhone shots I shared online during my time on the project were invariably met with howls of protest and angry remarks directed at the fishermen. But to catch a shark in Indonesia is not illegal. Neither is the processing on dry land of that same shark, which may include the removal of its fins for export to countries where they are used in the preparation of sharkfin soup. None of this is illegal. What is more, these sustenance fisherman live by this fishery and feed their families by it. To label them shark finners is misguided.

That reality could not be clearer to me as I walked along trash-strewn beaches to the north of the fish market, to the shantytowns where the fishermen live. I dodged piles of human and animal waste, plastic, diapers, sanitary towels and fish parts, in places so thick they blotted out the sand. The residents here have no running water, no electricity and live in dwellings patched together with pieces of wood and thatch, families of six or more living in cramped quarters and abject poverty.

Men head out for more than 12 days at a time to catch sharks. Sometimes they will lay 50 kilometres of long lines to catch just one animal. If they are lucky they will land some fish, which will feed their families. If they strike out, they’ll need to rely on handouts from friends and other family members. Local governments provide no social welfare here.

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Saving sharks from the fate that awaits them at Tanjung Luar means giving the fishermen here a viable financial alternative.

So what is the solution for those who want to end the shark killings here? Clearly, what the local fishermen need more than anything else is a viable financial alternative … and that alternative could be provided by the diving operations in the area. I have seen this arrangement working on an island in Fiji, an area where shark-related diving contributed $42.2 million to the economy in 2010. One diving operation rented a swathe of barren reef from the local villagers and a no-take zone was agreed. With this economic incentive in place, protecting the sharks became a win-win opportunity, and, within a few years, what was once a reef devoid of life flourished into one of Fiji’s most prominent shark-diving spots – a great example of what can be achieved when eco-tourism ventures have the cooperation of local communities.

Could such a model be implemented in Indonesia? The global shark dive industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars – proof that sharks are worth more in the ocean than in a bowl of soup. According to the Pew Environment Group, the lifetime economic value of shark is around US$1.9 million – while killing a shark for its fins will generate only around $108. The key is to put projects in place that will give locals a fair share of these tourism dollars. Given the number of species and sheer size of some of the specimens I encountered during my time in Tanjung Luar, I believe Indonesia has some amazing diving encounters to offer. The problem is forging ahead with a plan where everyone will benefit, where the fisherman who has sacrificed his right to fish is rewarded for protecting the ocean’s apex predators. Only then will the region’s sharks be spared the fate awaiting them on the cold slabs of the fish market.