Project Leader

Yunita Wakhida

Yunita Wakhida

Who I am

I was born and raised in Indonesia, a country made up of thousands of islands that has the highest level of shark exploitation in the world. My interest in sawfish began when I was studying the socio-economics of fisheries at a university in Indonesia. During the course I became aware of the dynamics of coastal communities and how the sustainability of ocean resources depends on balancing the competing interests of commerce and biodiversity. After I graduated I joined the conservation organisation Sawfish Indonesia as its socio-economic coordinator. In this role I have conducted numerous interviews with fishermen to assess the status and population of sawfish at Merauke in Papua Province, as well as more broadly throughout the province, the most easterly in Indonesia. Through this research I learned that sawfish populations have been decimated in recent decades and that these charismatic rays are among the most endangered elasmobranchs. Since then I have utilised my knowledge and skills and those of my organisational partners to protect these wonderful rays. I hope that one day the Indonesian government will implement effective conservation strategies to ensure that sawfish species will rebound and repopulate the many coasts, rivers and lakes in which they were formerly abundant.

Where I work

The natural environment of Asmat Regency, a district in the south of Papua Province, provides habitat that is suitable for sawfish, with healthy mangrove forests and several large rivers spread across the region’s 10 districts. Preliminary enquiries addressed to fishers there yielded reports that sawfish were still encountered as recently as 1995, while multiple historical photographs obtained from a researcher at the Sawfish Conservation Society confirmed the presence of largetooth sawfish Pristis pristis, green sawfish P. zijsron and dwarf sawfish P. clavata. The comparatively undeveloped nature of Asmat Regency, its still-extensive intact mangrove forests (used by sawfish as nursery areas) and the fact that it is subjected to lower commercial fishing pressure than Merauke, for example, are all factors that make this southerly district likely to be crucial for sawfish conservation – a core from which populations could be distributed to more heavily fished regions.
This project is the first to formerly assess the status of sawfish in the area, so many parties need to work together to obtain the comprehensive data required to inform conservation efforts. However, since Asmat Regency is underdeveloped, conservation has not yet been considered a priority there.

What I do

The researchers on this project are tackling it from a number of different angles. Firstly, they are performing catch-and-release net surveys to acquire baseline knowledge of the presence of sawfish species along the region’s coast and rivers. They are also conducting interviews with community leaders, fishers and local inhabitants to obtain information about historical encounters with sawfish; knowledge of nursery areas; subsistence and commercial fishing for sawfish in the region; local attitudes to sawfish and their symbolism in Asmat and Mimika cultures; the use of sawfish for meat and materials; and the change in abundance of sawfish species and its causes. In each village they visit, team members enquire about preserved sawfish rostra, take photographs of any rostrum found, measure it and identify the species it comes from, and find out as much as they can about the circumstances of the catch. With the help of interviewees who have encountered sawfish, a map is being created to record the precise locations where sawfish of different species and sizes were found. This will help us to understand habitat usage by sawfish in Asmat Regency and to identify areas where sawfish habitat could be protected.

My project

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