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Developing the first trunk identification guide for CITES-listed species: Identifying headless, finless sharks

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shark trunks

The challenge of identifying shark trunks

Trade of shark meat has increased substantially over the last decade and in Indonesia shark meat consumption is at an all-time high, providing an important source of local protein to coastal communities.

As well as being available in processed form such as fillets, shark meat is also traded as whole-body trunks, which can be headless, finless or both. In addition to local trade there is also a large international market for shark products and with more species being listed on the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), regulating exports is a hot topic. The process of verifying these products at the point of export was one of the processes flagged as challenging during the first year of our Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund project.

Although missing the most commonly used identifying features, these trunks may have enough distinguishing features for accurate identification, when inspected with a keen eye. With this in mind, the project team secured some additional funds from the UK Government to support the development of the first visual trunk identification guide for CITES-listed species to help current inspectors “on the ground” to quickly and reliably identify these shark and ray species.


Our approach

In January I travelled to Indonesia with the Cefas team who were participating in the “train the trainers” week-long workshop in Jakarta. It was here that I met up with the other project partners involved in creating the Trunk ID guide. The best place to start when creating something like this is a world leading expert, which is where Debra Abercrombie came in. As an author of several shark fin ID guides for CITES-listed species and a leading authority in identifying sharks, she fit the bill perfectly. Leading the development of the trunk guide, it was Debra’s task during this scoping visit to assess the main challenges on the ground and to direct the collection of high-resolution images of relevant species and their unique identifying features. This task called for professional photos and photographers, which were provided by our Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) partners. With representatives from WCS and MMAF rounding out the team we took a short internal flight from Jakarta to Denpasar to get started. This region processes a lot of shark trunks caught as valued by-catch in the tuna fishery, giving us the opportunity to really optimise the time we spent in Indonesia.

On the first day we visited two exporting facilities with representatives from the BPSPL (Marine and Coastal Resources Management Unit) technical unit joining us. At the first facility we arrived just as an inspection was ongoing, giving us a unique opportunity to see first-hand the challenges faced by the inspecting staff. Time pressure, condition (e.g. frozen), state (e.g. headless), and volume all add to the challenge of accurately identifying the species. Seeing the inspectors work really helped Debra and I understand the importance of design when it comes to how the guide will be used, which was reinforced later.

Men organising shark specimens
BPSPL inspectors checking an export shipment for CITES listed species.

With ideas about the guide already forming, Debra and the WCS photographers, Faisal and Rifky, began taking detailed, high resolution photos of the species needed for the guide. One of the aims for the scoping visit was to establish a standard photographing procedure as Debra was only in Indonesia for a limited time and more photos would be collected once she returned home. After photographing the first few specimens, a clear rhythm developed, and we were well underway. We collected images of nine different shark species at the first exporter, followed by additional species of shark, giant guitarfish and wedgefish at the second facility.


Making the guide work

After visiting the exporters’ facilities, we returned to the local BPSPL office in Denpasar to discuss and understand the importance of the trunk ID in helping the verification team do their job effectively. From our experience earlier in the day and the discussions that followed, it was clear that there were some important considerations that would make the guide workable in a field setting, such as;

  • Small size, A4 or even A5, for portability
  • Waterproof pages for longevity
  • Clear concise descriptions of unique features
  • A flow chart that was simple and quick to use.

With the procedures for taking the photos set, and some in hand, we left Bali content and returned to Jakarta where we joined the practical field visit organised as part of the “train the trainers” workshop. The site visit took us to another two exporting facilities in Muara Baru and also gave us the opportunity to visit the local market. The process was a repeat of what we did in Bali; identify the trunks present and taking as many detailed photographs as possible. While there were some new species, including a great hammerhead and a pelagic thresher, the main difference was the size of the trunks. The ones we encountered in Jakarta were much larger, giving a great comparison of the ID features on bigger individuals.

Following the end of the workshop Debra returned home to set about starting the guide, creating the layout and taking what we had learnt onboard while our partners in Indonesia continue to collect pictures of more shark species. Once complete this guide will be presented to the verification staff in Indonesia for real world application and will be made available more widely so other countries can benefit from this work.

Collage of shark speimens being organised and photgraphed
BPSPL inspectors checking an export shipment for CITES listed species.

As part of a scientific observer team in Cefas, fish markets and merchants are a familiar place to be and its surprising how similar issues arise even though the fisheries are completely different. The challenges faced by the Indonesian verification teams are stark and varied, yet they face them with enthusiasm, creativity and a desire to improve their methods and protect these species.

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