I first met ‘Shark Girl’ Madison Stewart – or ‘Pip’ to her friends and family – two years ago. I knew of her work on the films Shark Girl, Blue and then Sharkwater Extinction, with the late Rob Stewart – her close friend and mentor. Then I heard about her project with Indonesian fishers in Lombok to offer them a different way of making a living by taking tourists on trips in their boats to experience the joys of the ocean. I lived nearby, on Gili Trawangan, and jumped at the chance to go on one of her first tourist charters.
Catching up with her this summer on Lombok, she filled me in on how Project Hiu (hiu is Bahasa Indonesian for shark) was getting on, and explained in detail how it all got started.
‘It’s so strange, because I never wanted to come to Indonesia,’ 27-year-old Pip told me over a coffee. ‘In the shark community, Indonesia has a reputation for being a heavily fished environment, and I knew it was the largest shark-catching nation in the world; and I didn’t want to be a tourist supporting it. Now l am trying to actually arrange to live here.’
She told me how the film crew of Blue had to persuade her to get on the plane from her home in Australia’s Gold Coast to visit the notorious fish market in Lombok, one of the largest in Indonesia.
‘I knew that I didn’t want to come in and then leave, and to demonise the fishermen,’ she added. ‘It’s something I talked about with the film crew. We came into the shark market on our first day here, and we saw hundreds of dead sharks – species that I’d never even seen in the wild. Huge sharks. It was incredibly confronting, and it was also quite shocking. We didn’t interact with the fishermen then, and that has never really sat well with me.’
It wasn’t until the release of Blue at a film festival that she found inspiration from another film being screened that led to Project Hiu. ‘We were watching a bunch of short films, and there was one about this fishing community in Mexico, and all the fishermen were shark fishermen, and then they realised that tourists wanted to come and do whale-watching from their village, so they refitted all their boats to run tourist trips. Once they had been taught how, the fishermen took it upon themselves to do the rest. That’s where I got this idea of like, “holy hell, I could do that number!”’
Pip decided to head back to Lombok. ‘It was just on a whim, so it was incredibly lucky that the fisherman I happened to meet that day was Odi. Odi is the one who should be sitting here talking to you, because he’s the brains behind a lot of what’s happened, and he’s the reason I’ve been able to make the project possible.’
She said that she doesn’t want to be all ‘hippie’ about it, but the ‘Universe must have had my back that day’. He was the first person she approached, and the only one to speak good English. His family owned the most shark boats on their fishing island – that day they landed more than 80 sharks.
‘I told him I was a pro surfer, and I asked him if he knew any local waves that we might not know about, which is so funny for anybody who knows how bad I am at surfing. At first, he was super-hesitant. He didn’t want us to take any pictures of the sharks he was unloading. After a while of chatting with him, I asked him, “Can I hire your boat tomorrow, and you can show me some of these spots?”’
Pip was surprised when she saw the boat the next day. ‘They had really cleaned it up. It went from having rivers of blood, to being immaculate. When I got on the board, I was like, “Is this gonna work? I don’t know”. Five minutes later, we’re at some of the most beautiful coral I have ever seen. That afternoon, we surfed the waves coming off their island. It was one of the most wild on-the-water experiences I’ve ever had, and that’s when I realised, holy shit, this could work. There’s potential here. I could bring tourists to be on this boat. That was back in 2017.’
As I am listening to Pip speak about the fishermen and Odi, it becomes clear how difficult it is for the locals to escape shark fishing. Odi is one of the more well-to-do fishers, by his village’s standards, but even he could not avoid it. She told me Odi’s story. ‘He’s been to university and studied a few different languages, and one of them was English. He was in his third year when his father passed away, which is the only reason that he went back into shark fishing, because he had to come home and provide for his family. He wants more for himself and his family, and he’s very, very good at helping me make this project possible.”
Pip explained how it is an industry of exploitation. The fishermen are born into the trade, some starting as young as seven. She added, as an aside, that was the age she was when she saw her first shark with her father, an avid diver, and pointed out if she had been born in Odi’s world, she would most likely be fishing sharks rather than photographing them.
‘It always shocks me when I talk to people about the shark-fin trade, and they immediately go towards hating the fishermen. What people don’t see is the guy that buys the fins off them and the factory that exports them, and the people in Hong Kong that buy the fins and then resell them. The fishermen are at the bottom of the food chain – you’re looking at the most exploited part of the entire trade. It’s easy to make them the villain, but they’re the victims of the trade.’
Pip knows the danger of fishing sharks first-hand. She went on a two-week trip out to sea with the local fishers, a voyage she told me she wouldn’t want to do again. There was a crew of eight on a boat which was not equipped to cover the distance it did. The crew were all very stressed – not how they are on her tourist trips. They knew accidents were frequent. The equipment was basic. They had to rely on the skills of their highly experienced skipper to survive the rough journey.
‘It was crazy,’ she remembered. ‘I thought they would have had some kind of method to pull the sharks up onto the boat, but they’re pulling 100-kilogram animals over the side of the boat, with nylon lines with their bare hands.’
The locals go out on such trips roughly once a month. The money made is split between the crew, which on a successful voyage could be US$100 a head, or more frequently as low as $25 – not enough to support their dependant families. By contrast, one 500g fin can sell for nearly $1,000 in Hong Kong.
Before the global Covid-19 pandemic, Pip had built up the project to run enough tourist trips to keep as many as three fishing boats fully employed in some months, and with a better wage for the crews than they would have got from shark fishing. But it was a daunting prospect with an uncertain outcome at the start.
‘The first thing I had to do was to convince the shark fishermen that they wanted to be involved in tourism with me. But also, I had to convince tourists to come and get on a shark-fishing boat with me. To my absolute shock, everybody was keen to do so; they were just dying for the opportunity to be involved in something bigger – to experience the marine ecosystem, but also to do it in a way that they know is helping sharks.
‘What’s so amazing about the trips is that people don’t really care about the stunning corals or learning to surf. They care about the fact that they get to sit next to a shark fisherman and know that he’s not shark fishing because they’re there. That’s what they get on the trips, and that’s honestly why it’s worked.’
Pip’s project has moved beyond just running tours. She has become involved in the family life of the shark fishermen and the whole village of around 3,000 people.
One of the first things she realised, as she spent more time on the island, was that there was no proper schooling for the children. The teachers at the school were untrained volunteers who were getting paid US$15 a month. There were many adults in the community who couldn’t read or write. The project funded teachers and a translator.
‘One of the biggest things that I’d like to see happen in this project is expanding the education of the kids and helping the school; the school is severely underfunded.’
The project has also helped to improve the drinkable water on the island, as well as improve the waste- management system.
Asking her about her goals for the future, Pip was cautious. ‘People ask me all the time what the plan is and where I’d like to see it in years to come. But I try to avoid overthinking about that, because, you just never know. It takes a lot of time to do this properly.
I try to let it happen organically, and so far, that’s been really, really good. I would eventually like to see is a sponsorship system where big corporations could sponsor our boats – it’s not that much money. They could brand a boat and advertise that they’ve stopped it from fishing for an entire year and saved more than 500 sharks, employed five men and supported all their families. These days, companies want to show they’re doing some good.’
Covid-19 has been tough for the project because tourism is its primary source of income, and that has come to a complete halt in Indonesia. However, Pip and her business partner, Ben Hall, have done well with e-commerce, selling branded goods on Project Hiu’s website, and donations also flow in steadily.
One special moment that stood out for her was when a fisherman called and asked her if it would be okay to go back to fishing sharks. She told me that they were afraid she would stop supporting them if they did. She reassured them that she would never try to stop them from fishing sharks if she couldn’t help provide a viable alternative. She is also adamant that she won’t pay them money just to stay home and do nothing.
‘I would like the future to be a little bit more self-sustaining. I’d like them to be able to run day trips without me, and for our training on how to be eco-tourism guides to kick in. It would be great to get them to not throw the cigarette butts into the ocean, and switching them from anchors to moorings and little things like that. I’d like to see them being able to function on their own to take tourists out. They already want to rip out the boxes on their boats where they keep sharks, and to put seats in there for tourists. They are the ones who want this, sometimes more than I do. I’m acting like a facilitator, which is great. That’s what my role should be.’
She told me that they were going to the shark market in a few days, and that I could join them. Two days later I jumped into the car with her and photographer Caragh Fraser, who helps her document the shark-fin trade.
It was vast. People everywhere. Noisy, chaotic, unhygienic, and the nearer we got to the shark-finning area, extremely pungent. We had come on the day of a large landing of sharks. All types of sharks: silkies, hammers, threshers, tiger sharks… lying in pools of blood. Pip looked at the boats in the harbour and told me they weren’t local – probably from Java. She pointed out the buyers as she navigated through the streams of blood and gore in the area where the sharks were being cut up, and warned that this was the time they are most sensitive to filming. A few moments later, one guy started pointing at us, gesticulating for us to move back and to stop taking photographs. She quietly told me not to push it anymore as we had enough footage.
The shark fins were being separated and put into boxes, and immediately driven off on scooters. Pip pointed out the shark meat being put on the side and explained that they would sell it despite it not being for human consumption. The mercury-riddled meat ends up being eaten by the poorest on Lombok. It leads to cancers, Parkinson’s Disease, congenital disabilities, spinal problems and a host of other conditions. She told me the mercury bioaccumulates – it doesn’t pass through the digestive system but lingers in the body. She often takes samples of the meat back to Australia for scientists to test mercury levels and to identify any other toxic chemicals that the sharks as apex predators may have accumulated.
It was a typical scene as we walked back to the village near the market: insane midday heat; street vendors shouting over each other; exotic smells wafting; kids bathing in the ocean; and fishermen coming and going. Pip took a minute to kick a football with some of the kids. I could but hope that her vision of a world with opportunities for these kids becomes a reality.
l To find out more about Project Hiu and to support Pip’s work go to its website