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From Tourism to Conservation

With its crystal clear waters, mile upon mile of pristine, glittering beaches, beautiful jungles, great weather, wonderful culture and phenomenal food, Indonesia is a major hotspot for tourists travelling from all over the world. One of the biggest drivers for many of these visitors is the opportunity to see and swim with Indonesia's incredible marine life. Thanks to its position in the Coral Triangle, Indonesia boasts some of the highest shark biodiversity of anywhere in the world. But with so many communities relying on shark fishing for income and subsistence, is it possible to maintain healthy shark populations in Indonesia? What is the incentive for local people to stop shark fishing? In short, can tourism actually drive conservation for sharks in Indonesia?

The opportunity to dive with manta rays is a major incentive for tourists to visit Indonesia (Image Credit: Emma Li / Pexels)

The Magic of the Coral Triangle

The ‘Coral Triangle’ encompasses the highest biodiversity of coral fishes in the world. Stretching from Malaysia, through Indonesia and into the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, the area only covers 1.6% of the world’s oceanic area, but it hosts 76% of all known coral species and more than 3,000 species of fish. The area has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and includes several national parks and marine protected areas (MPAs) (Gade et al, 2016).

Within the triangle, the waters of Indonesia are a global biodiversity hotspot for sharks and rays. As many as 117 species of sharks can be found in Indonesia waters! The includes blue sharks (Prionace glauca), many species of reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos, C. falciformes, C. longimanus, C. sorrah, C. melanopterus), hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus), thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus), dogfish (Centroscymnus crepidater and Squalus megalops) and smooth-hounds (Mustelus manazo) and the fabulous whale shark (Rhinocodon typus). Indonesia even boasts some really unique species that can only be found in this part of the world, like the Halmahera shark (Hemiscyllium halmahera) (Gade et al, 2016; Mustika et al, 2020).

Thanks to such wonderful natural beauty, Indonesia is a major global destination for marine-based tourism. Of a total of 200 million tourists visiting Indonesia annually, 18 million take part in marine-based tourism, such as snorkelling or diving (Gade et al, 2016; Mustika et al, 2020).

Diving = Dollars

it might sound cold, but money makes the world go around, so capitol is a major driver in how countries invest in protecting their natural resources. If shark populations remain at the levels they are now, it is thought that by 2027 the shark watching industry in Indonesia could generate $487.3 million USD annually. This is 1.45 times the capitol that would be generated if Indonesia decided to land their sharks in fisheries instead! On the contrary, if shark and ray populations declined as a result of overexploitation in fisheries, Indonesia could incur economic losses up to $USD 121.1 million USD! That is a loss of 24.8% of the their potential revenues! If that is not an incentive for Indonesia to work to protect their sharks, I don’t know what is! (Gade et al, 2016; Mustika et al, 2020).

The Coral Triangle boasts some of the highest coral, fish and shark biodiversity of anywhere in the world (Image Credit: frantisekhojdysz / Shutterstock)

Toursim Drives Conservation

And they certainly are working to protect their natural resources! Indonesia has now established hundreds of MPAs and reached its goal to protect 10 million hectares by 2010, in accordance with their commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). They also have action plans to protect sharks specifically. Measures include regulations on fishing and limiting trade of several species which are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and/or the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (Gade et al, 2016; Mustika et al, 2020).

The Indonesian government has invested in creating many new MPAs in order to protect their vulnerable and valuable marine resources (Gade et al, 2016)

Conservation in Conflict with Communities

However, one of the greatest challenge conservationists face when designing management plans, is balancing the need to protect the natural world without alienating local communities. Implementing MPAs, where fisheries are excluded or certain species cannot be fished, can have a significant impact on local communities that rely on these resources. Therefore, for any conservation project to be successful, it is vital to engage and incentivise the local people, so that they support management plans (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).

It is especially important to protect species with a limited geographical range, like the Halmahera shark which is endemic to Indonesia (Image Credit: Mark Erdmann / WikimediaCommons)

Indonesia still ranks as the world’s largest exporter of shark products and shark fishing is important to many people in Indonesia, both for subsistence and income (to learn more you can check out It's a Small World After All). So, whilst it might seem like a no-brainer - because protective legislation banning shark fishing will improve the Indonesian economy in the long-term - it is also important to consider how bans might impact upon vulnerable communities, even if economic losses may only be short-term. Instead of empowering the local people, this approach is likely to simply push activities underground and force people to engage in illegal fishing and finning in order to support their families. To learn more you can check out Diving for Dollars (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).

Fishing hundreds of thousands of tons of sharks every year, mostly for export, Indonesia has been identified as one of the top shark fishing nations, which must invest in making their fisheries more sustainable (Bräutigam et al, 2015)

Diving tourism certainly has the potential to be a significant driver of shark and ray conservation in Indonesia, but increasing the gross national profit (GDB) is only valuable if it genuinely benefits the people. Therefore, shifting the value of sharks from an extractive to a non-consumptive resource on a national scale in Indonesia will involve ensuring that capitol generated by shark diving not only benefits communities which are involved in the tourism, but also filters down to benefit fishers and retailers, who otherwise might favour selling shark products. Incentivising communities to value live sharks will only be possible if local people have a voice in negotiations, and their traditions and cultures are respected (Gade et al, 2016; Mustika et al, 2020; Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).

"Local incentives and engagement is key to conservation success".

It is certainly a very complex issue and one that cannot and will not be solved overnight! But with such wonderful national treasures at stake, it is definitely worth investing our time in working alongside Indonesian communities, to protect their magnificent marine environments. Only by working together can we ensure that travellers will be able to enjoy the magic of the Coral Trangle for many years to come.

Shark fishing is very important for income and subsistence for many people in Indonesia, so it is vital that shark conservation plans do not alienate and discriminate against the most vulnerable communities (Image credit: Toto Santiko Budi / Shutterstock)


Bräutigam A, Callow M, Campbell IR, Camhi MD, Cornish AS, Dulvy NK, Fordham SV, Fowler SL, Hood AR, McClennen C, Reuter EL, Sant G, Simpfendorfer CA & Welch DJ (2015). Global Priorities for Conserving Sharks and Rays: A 2015–2025 Strategy. Access online.

CBD (2020). Convention on Biodiversity. Access online.

Cisneros-Montemayor A, Barnes-Mauthe M, Al-Abdulrazzak D, Navarro-Holm E & Sumaila U (2013). Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation. Oryx, 47:03, 381-388. Access online.

CITES (2020). Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. Access online.

CMS (2020). Convention on the conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Access online.

Gade M, Mayer B, Pohlmann T, Putri M & Setiawan A (2016). Using SAR data for a numerical assessment of the Indonesian coastal environment. Proceedings of Living Planet Symposium 2016. Access online.

Mustika PLK, Ichsan M & Booth H (2020). The economic value of shark and ray tourism in Indonesia and its role in delivering conservation outcomes. Frontiers in Marine Science, 7, 261, doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.00261. Access online.

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Apr 13, 2023

Dear Sophie, many thanks for this article! May I offer however a word of caution against the notion that shark fishing is something that should be continued and, as some “Socio-environmentalists” push, that no-take areas should not be established if they do not allow for the “business as usual” of coastal fishing to continue. If it is true that MPAs might push fisheries aside, it is also true that in many places around the world the prevalence of non-extractive uses (ie diving, Ecotourism) helped to create quality jobs and better income for coastal communities. I suspect that you will enjoy reading my next book covering this subject, Living Water: Marine Ecotourism, Communities and Conservation, to be published later this yea…


Jun 22, 2020

love your articles .. keep them coming.

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