Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Leave Indonesia's fisheries to Indonesians!

Published: Jul 02, 2000

Corrupt foreign fishing fleets are depriving locals of food

Mark V Erdmann

For decades now, Indonesia's rich marine natural resources have been plundered at will by foreign fishing vessels. Some operate under 'official' licences purchased from Indonesian middlemen and even fly the Indonesian flag Others simply poach in the vast archipelagic seas, bolstered by the slim chance of encountering Indonesian navy vessels and the knowledge that they can usually pay their way out of any 'inconvenient' situations that might arise if they do. Many are said to work with the various enforcement agencies that should be preventing their activities.

Fortunately, Indonesia seems poised on the brink of changing this costly and unsustainable situation. In one of his first official addresses as president, Gus Dur highlighted the illegal foreign fishing problem as one of his priorities. Shortly thereafter he made good on his word by creating the new Ministry for Marine Exploration and Fisheries, and installing one of Indonesia's best known marine environmentalists, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, as the new minister. This change is long overdue. As 'fish wars' erupt between nations all over the world, Indonesia must realise and protect what is potentially its most sustainable and valuable natural resource, its fisheries. Minister Sarwono recently suggested that the loss in revenue to the Indonesian economy as a result of foreign 'fish stealing' may top US$4 billion!

The following opinion is based not on official statistics or the views of a fisheries scientist, but rather on my experience as a coral reef ecologist living in and travelling through small fishing villages throughout eastern Indonesia for the past nine years. During this time I have had the opportunity to discuss the foreign fleet issue with native fishermen from all over Sulawesi and Maluku, as well as to witness firsthand the status of eastern Indonesia's pelagic and reef fisheries.

The issue of foreign fleets either operating under licence or poaching in Indonesian waters has been acknowledged as a 'problem' for years. But until recently neither officials nor academics took it seriously. This lack of concern stemmed from a common misconception that Indonesian fishermen are too poor and ignorant, their fishing gear not advanced enough to effectively harvest fish stocks, and that they are ineffectual seamen who don't have what it takes to stay at sea and really fish. Combined with the totally ludicrous idea that Indonesia's fisheries resources are underexploited, many fisheries officers and government officials seemed to feel that Indonesia might as well have foreign vessels 'help' with fishing lest all those extra fish go to waste! These misconceptions were reinforced by consecutive Suharto-era five year plans (Repelita) that inevitably called for a more intensive fisheries effort, and by 'official' fisheries statistics that predictably showed a perfect increase in catches in line with the demands of the Repelita.

In my opinion, none of this could be further from the truth. Indonesia's fishermen are extremely competent seamen who do quite a good job of catching any and all commercially important fish species. Moreover Indonesia's fish stocks are mostly overexploited. In a country where fish is considered almost as indispensable as rice in a common meal, at least in eastern Indonesia, villagers are increasingly forced to eat juvenile and 'trash' fishes. There is no excuse for this. A country with a fisheries potential as vast as Indonesia's should be able to feed its own people sustainably. Indonesia's fisheries are the property of the Indonesian people, and should be utilised first and foremost to nourish these people. Only if there is excess should fisheries products be exported.

Unfortunately, there is no excess. While it is not true that Indonesia's fishermen are unable to effectively harvest Indonesia's fisheries, it is true that they are generally at a great competitive disadvantage compared to foreign fleets who use high-technology, unsustainable (and often illegal) fishing gears such as trawl nets, drift nets and massive long lines to decimate pelagic and demersal fisheries throughout the archipelago. Corruption, greed and government short-sightedness have meant that foreign fleets are generally given the green light to plunder Indonesia's most valuable stocks, while sharing a miniscule portion of their profits with a few corrupt government officials. Indonesia's increasingly marginalised traditional fishermen, meanwhile, are left to fight for the scraps. This in turn has led to increased environmental degradation and a decreasing quality of life in many coastal villages as fishermen turn to destructive techniques to make a living and put some fish on their collective plates. I offer two examples from Sulawesi as an illustration.

Blast fishing

When diving on a coastal village's reefs during a recent expedition to Pare Pare in South Sulawesi, two observations struck me most. First, a significant number of larger boats were sitting on the beach in various stages of decay. Second, the reefs had been extremely badly damaged by blast fishing. As I talked with some older fishers, a soon-familiar scenario emerged. The villagers traditionally fished for 'small pelagics' - skipjack tuna, small mackerel and scad. For generations they had harvested the bountiful pelagic schools that often came quite close to the reef. By the mid-1980's, many had built larger long-pole and purse seine boats and were making quite a good living from this fishery.

However, their luck changed in the late 80's when large Taiwanese boats started working the area. The fishery collapsed within a few years. Left with no alternative, the fishermen stored their tuna boats on the beach and turned to blast fishing on their own reefs to supply their fish needs. By the late 90's, their reefs were no longer productive and they are now forced to eat small 'trash' fishes and the remaining baitfish that they can still catch from Pare Pare's harbour with night lift-nets.

A similar, potentially tragic situation is now evolving in North Sulawesi within the Bunaken National Marine Park. This is one of Indonesia's best known marine tourism destinations. On Bunaken island the majority of fishermen are also small pelagics fishers, which augurs well for conservation efforts within the park. Since these fishermen are not targeting reef fisheries, there is great potential for coexistence of fishing and marine ecotourism.

Foreign fishing operations are threatening to damage both of these important sectors of the North Sulawesi economy. In 1997 and 1998, the now infamous 'Curtain of Death' Taiwanese trap net that stretched across the Lembeh Strait decimated migratory pelagic fish and marine mammal stocks in North Sulawesi (see box below). Not only did Bunaken fishermen see the effect in their daily catches, tourism also suffered. The number of sightings of dolphins, manta rays and other diver favourites plummeted.

Minister Sarwono, then Minister of Environment, eventually ordered the Taiwanese trap net taken down. But foreign fleets continue to threaten Bunaken National Park, albeit in a less direct manner. The Bunaken fishermen increasingly report conflicts with foreign tuna fishermen. They are now actively vandalising foreign fishing gears, such as long line radio buoys and fish aggregating devices when they encounter them. The fishermen face a 'double whammy' - Filipino boats poach the waters just northwest of the park, while Taiwanese, Korean and Hong Kong boats (with 'official' licences) work the seas to the north and east of the park. The latter have greatly increased in number since the spread of violence in Ambon, when a number of foreign fleets relocated from Maluku to Bitung as their 'home' port.

Close the seas

As these bigger and more technologically advanced foreign fleets decimate North Sulawesi's stocks, the Bunaken fishermen must travel further and further to catch fish - often 3-5 hours by wooden speedboat from the island. They now increasingly resort to spearfishing and gillnetting on Bunaken's heavily touristed reefs in order to feed their families. Tourism and fishing, once compatible, are now increasingly enemies. In large part this is due to the activities of foreign fishing fleets.

My suggestion for Minister Sarwono and the Indonesian government? Close Indonesia's seas completely to foreign fleets. Period. Allow Indonesian fishermen only to catch Indonesian fish. After five years, the situation can certainly be reassessed. If there is strong scientific evidence for surplus fish production (ie., underexploited stocks), then the issue of exports can be re-examined. But only in a sustainable manner in which Indonesian fishermen catch the fish that are exported. There is simply no justification for foreign fleets to operate in Indonesian waters. Bigger, more technologically-advanced fishing fleets are not better only more efficient at speeding the collapse of a fishery. Indonesia's traditional fishermen don't need any 'help' from foreign fleets. They should be supported and encouraged by their government to harvest what rightfully belongs to them.

Mark V Erdmann (flotsam@manado.wasantara.net.id) is a reef ecologist with the Natural Resources Management/ EPIQ Program in North Sulawesi.

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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