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Overfishing in Indonesia? What Do You Mean: I Don’t See Any Fishers!

Yes, I am lucky. I have been able to sail the waters of Eastern Indonesia over nearly 20 years, and I have dipped underwater, swimming around some incredible lagoons, reefs, and seamounts. When people ask me where to see some remote coasts I say, go anywhere east. Staring at a coastline from a boat anywhere...

Photo: Komodo East Indonesia Coastline
East Indonesian coastline

Yes, I am lucky. I have been able to sail the waters of Eastern Indonesia over nearly 20 years, and I have dipped underwater, swimming around some incredible lagoons, reefs, and seamounts. When people ask me where to see some remote coasts I say, go anywhere east. Staring at a coastline from a boat anywhere east from Jakarta gives you that explorer feeling: you see the same impressive volcanoes stringing together that famous ring of fire that was described to the world by the Blair brothers in their films in the early ‘90s. Lower on the volcanic slopes, you will see some small smokey plumes circling up to the sky, where someone is frying some ubi (bread fruit) for breakfast, and near the water line you will see small villages, some cows, goats, and a bunch of boats on the beach. I have taken many supporters of our fisheries and conservation work along on such trips and it usually does not take long before I get the question: Where are the fishers?

When we plunge in any one of the reefs along the way, my fellow divers and I are overtaken by the colors and variety of underwater plants and animals, but before the dive is over, one cannot escape the feeling that something is missing. Where are the big fish? The reefs are mostly devoid of large fish and many publications by renowned Indonesian and international scientists reflect how most of Indonesia’s fish stocks are overfished or at their maximum level of exploitation. Yet, to the occasional observer, it may look like not much is happening at sea.

Photo: east Indonesia Coral triangle Free Dive
Lida free diving on sea mount eastern Indonesia

Looking deeper

Indonesia is at the center of the Coral Triangle, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world with over 76% of the world’s coral species and 37% of the world’s reef fish species within its boundaries. Global trends for this region demonstrate that fishing effort has been and is increasing at a faster rate than any other region of the world’s oceans. Fishery management is failing to reach sustainability. Recent studies have shown that the increase of fishing pressure is threatening the health of fish stocks, impacting coral health, and resulting in underperforming fisheries. This is significant considering that 50% of the protein intake by thousands of coastal communities comes from fish and that hundreds of thousands of people – including many women – have a job direct or indirectly related to Indonesian fisheries.

To date, the challenges of enforcing, monitoring, and controlling catch and effort regulation in Indonesia’s multi-species, multi-gear fisheries have been considered too high. The culprits were considered to be foreign fleets, legal or illegally operating inside Indonesian waters. Also, local fishers would point to roaming groups of dynamite and cyanide fishers as a major problem. Until now, not much thought has been given to how local coastal fishers contribute to overfishing. Since the transmigration programs and programs that provide subsidized technology, today and every day, an armada of hundreds of thousands of small and medium scale fishers put their fishing gears in waters inside the 4-nautical mile zone, along all coasts of the Indonesian archipelago.

Taking coastal fishers into account

Fish catch data inside this zone—arguably of the highest significance for sustained livelihoods and food security for Indonesian coastal communities—are mostly unreported. This may not have mattered much, decades ago when the pressure on seafood was not as high, and when Indonesia was not exporting so much of its marine products around the globe. Today, however, with recent knowledge on the significance of coastal waters on fish stock replenishment, and considering the challenges of determining the real time status of fish stocks in the ocean, information on all catch taken out of the waters–by large and small fishing operations—is a pre-requisite for any form of management. We should push aside the often-used argument of “protecting” small operations from taxes and fees related to license and registration. Taking away all subsidies, which often merely keep non-viable fisheries alive, will also reduce the needs of raising taxes.

Short-term sacrifices for long-term gains

Adding registration of coastal fishers to fisheries management and regulating the level of fishing in the coastal zone, not only allows for better estimates on the significance of this important part of the ocean for food security and livelihoods, it also allows the government and coastal communities to share stewardship and it can form the foundation for rights-based management (RBM) for reducing of inefficient and unsustainable fishing overcapacity and minimizing conflicts created by open access regimes. This may hurt some fishers in some areas in the short-term, but it helps avoid broad scale collapse of thousands of livelihoods in the mid-term, and contributes to safeguard an important part of the food security of millions of people across the archipelago in the long-term.

All it takes as a first step, is for decision makers to acknowledge that an occasional visit to a single fish landing site or across a lagoon near some village, presents just the tip of the ice berg (or an underwater volcano in this case). Adding up thousands of such occasional observations along the more than 80,000 km of this country’s coastline, will show how deceptive the word “small-scale” is for this huge coastal inshore fishery management challenge. The thousands of communities providing tons of seafood to the world today in fact need increased regulation and management. Their livelihoods, food and future depend on it.

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Meet the Author

Lida Pet-Soede
worried mother, passionate marine conservationist, relaxed diver