Making a Difference: How Madison Stewart Helps Shark Fishers Find a New Life
The first time Madison Stewart came to Lombok in Indonesia, was to film the shark-finning trade. She had to be persuaded by the film crew that it was a good idea. Today, a tiny island off Lombok is her second home, the base of Project Hiu, a radical programme she founded with the help of the local people to offer an alternative to the harsh and dangerous living of slaughtering sharks
I first met Madison – ‘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.’
Read the full interview with Pip in the Autumn 2021 edition of DIVE and discover more about Project Hiu …