Fishing the Line: Out of Fish and Out of Time

(This article was written for and published by in February 2016)

Growing up in an archipelago, I listened to tales of the sea, with its bountiful nature and troughs of treasures. It is inconceivable that one day, all of those fish could cease to exist. We hold steadfast to the notion that the ocean will continue to provide for mankind. It is a thought that is timeless, comforting and nostalgic, but here is the grim reality – almost all fish populations are completely exploited, and if the status quo persists there will be no fish left in Indonesian seas.

Since our new Minister Ibu Susi Pudjiastuti took office almost a year ago, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries has been in the media spotlight for its bold actions against IUU (illegal, unreported and undocumented) fishing. For once, it seems like Indonesian fishery is on an upward trajectory. In terms of eradicating illegal poachers and establishing sovereignty, it really is. Yet, critically examining efforts to end black-market fishing operations reveals a hard truth – that with or without illegal fishing, Indonesian fisheries are on a one-way trip to overexploitation.

Government efforts to end IUU fishing have focused on the South China Sea region, where an estimated 77% of illegal fishing vessels are caught. Yet, the fish caught in this area represent only 22% of Indonesia’s potential catch, a figure that pales in comparison to the potential catch of other regions, including East Indonesia. In order to assess the root causes of Indonesia’s overexploitation crisis, leaders must look not only at IUU fishing, but also towards domestic overfishing, and the impact that national policy has had on our underwater ecosystem.

The Issue: Legal Overfishing

Fishing in Indonesia is based on open-access regulation, which allows any fisher or company to fish as much and as often as they want. Although fishing requires certain permits and licenses, obtaining the necessary documents is purely an administrative procedure. Similar to applying for a driver’s license, issuance is contingent upon completing a checklist of necessities. Because current licensing is not based on environmental considerations, the number of legal boats and fishers far exceeds the ability of fish stocks to replenish itself. We, as a nation, are faced with legal overfishing. Thus, the threat posed by free-for-all fishing is really far more sinister and pressing than the theft of fish by foreign vessels.

The underwater ecosystem is akin to that of the rainforest – they are both closed ecosystems with a finite amount of resources. Visually, however, the difference is striking. Clear before-and-after images of deforestation are enough to send hordes of people protesting against illegal logging – “save the trees”, they cry. Quantifying the loss of fish and oceanic resources is a lot more difficult. Not only are underwater ecosystems ‘invisible’, but stock assessments for fish populations are not always available. The azure waters that lure humans to love the ocean also block our sight from knowing what is truly going on underneath; a blessing and a curse. In Indonesia, almost all fisheries are either fully exploited or overexploited. Yet, we still hold fast to the paradigm that the ocean is bountiful and will recover on its own.

How do we address this problem?

The truth is that there is no easy way out. However, a solid first step to address the issue is to accept and acknowledge the fact that legal overfishing is happening at this very moment. In order to take strides in the right direction, Indonesian leaders must develop management strategies that control open-access, either by introducing quota systems or minimum size regulations. In theory, the remedy to this situation is to reduce the scale of fishing efforts, through reductions in fleet size, the number of fishers, the times of the year that is allowed for fishing, or capping the catch at a certain limit. Of course, each of these options come with their own socio-economic and political challenges.

In a country where an estimated six million individuals are involved directly and indirectly in the fishing industry, institutional efforts to limit the impact of overfishing must also contend with the human cost. Through a ministerial decree, Ibu Susi banned the use of cantrang (trawl nets). This is an example of a law stipulating the reduction of fishing effort. That decision alone, however, brought a wave of protests from local fishers and associations. From an environmental conservation point of view, the law makes perfect sense. However, without alternative livelihoods and financial security, many Indonesian fishers are impacted by the decision. This highlights the precarious balance between humans and nature in pushing sustainability forward in the fisheries sector. In order to navigate these complex waters, Indonesian leaders must work towards building a fishing industry both sustainable and equitable in design.
The crucial question remains – do we want to remain stuck in the old belief that there are plenty more fish in the sea? Or even worse, do we want to continue to deny the fact that we are the perpetrators of our own environmental destruction? We are nearly out of fish and out of time, but definitely not out of options.

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