How This Former Teacher is Helping to Combat Shark Fishing

A snorkelling trip inspired Kathy Xu's innovative solution to the shark fishing crisis: Ecotourism.

Kathy Xu, a high school teacher in Singapore, had always wanted to see a shark in the wild. The opportunity finally came in 2011, when she went on a snorkelling trip to the Ningaloo Reef, off the coast of Western Australia. Not only was she not scared of the whale shark, the then 29-year-old was so inspired by its beauty and grace that tears sprang to her eyes inside her snorkel mask. “I was screaming with excitement inside, while still trying to keep calm and enjoy the moment,” she says.

After returning home to Singapore, Xu learned about the shark trade taking place at one of Indonesia’s largest fish markets. In the village of Tanjung Luar, on the island of Lombok, shark parts including meat, cartilage and teeth are cut up for export. Most prized are the fins, which fetch high prices because of the popularity of shark-fin soup.

Curious, Xu packed her bags and headed to Tanjung Luar. There, she spoke with several fishermen. Shark fishing is risky and involves hard physical work, but it is one of few ways for them to provide for their families.

The fishermen were knowledgeable and felt a great sense of pride for the local sea life. Once they heard that Xu liked to snorkel, they urged her to visit the coral reefs near the fish market. The reefs were stunning, teeming with life and colour. Xu was confident that ecotourism was the solution—a way the fishermen could make a living without having to catch sharks.

“I told them I’d pay them to take tourists out to see these snorkelling havens,” she says.

Together, Xu and the fishermen came up with the idea of snorkelling boat trips, and a deal was struck.

In late 2012, Xu quit her full-time teaching job to focus on building The Dorsal Effect, an ecotourism business she hoped would help save the declining shark population in Lombok’s waters.

Initially, Xu struggled to find investors, but in 2013 she won the Young Social Entrepreneurs competition funded by the Singapore International Foundation and was awarded the equivalent of US$7,500. She purchased snorkel gear, life vests and equipment and paid for boat repairs and refurbishments for the fishermen.

In late 2013, The Dorsal Effect launched its first boat trip. Snorkellers paid US$120 for a one-day excursion to explore places the local fishermen know about but could not be found on a Google search. It provides a much more reliable income for the fishermen than the precarious, and often dangerous, job of shark fishing.

In 2019, while working on a research project, Xu and Singapore-based shark scientist Naomi Clark-Shen found a female Rhynchobatus cooki, or clown wedge fish, at Jurong Fishery Port in Singapore. A relative of the shark, the species had not been seen for more than 20 years and was believed to be extinct. The discovery gave scientists hope, and it could be grounds for an in-depth conservation study.

For now, Xu, 41, is proud of the small changes she sees happening on Lombok, from the fishermen who now have a new way to earn an income to the school children who learn about sharks on tours with The Dorsal Effect. In the past decade, global demand for shark fins has declined—a promising result of conservation campaigns—but stricter government regulation is needed.

“I love the grace of sharks and decided that I wanted to change the negative opinion people have of them,” Xu says. “By encountering a shark respectfully, in its natural habitat, maybe there could be more compassion and empathy toward marine wildlife.”

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada