Fishing the Line: Out of Fish and Out of Time

(This article was written for and published by ThinkNusantara.com 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.


Epic Journey of Fish from Ocean to Table

Here is a short two pager on what really happens between fish being caught and fish being bought by consumers in the market. It really is not what you think. There is a common misperception of “fresh fish”. Most fish marketed as fresh fish simply means the fish is freshly landed/ offloaded; not necessarily freshly caught. With dwindling fish stocks, fishers need to venture out a lot further from the coast line. In order to make their trip profitable (enough catch to compensate high fuel usage to go far distances), fishers need a huge catch and therefore stay in the fishing ground a lot longer. Therefore, if you want legit fresh fish, sustainability of fish stocks is a key component to ensure safe, delicious, healthy, and legitimately fresh fish.

Indonesian fishery infographic
Indonesian fishery infographic
Indonesian fishery infographic
Indonesian fishery infographic

Indonesia is one of the largest seafood exporters, providing seafood to numerous countries such as USA, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan (mainly tuna) and lots of others. So my dear friends in Boston, seafood you eat might actually be from Indonesia! Sustainability in the ocean is a concern for all since we have this fish connection 😉 

Science Communication Workshops

In March 2021, I hosted a workshop, “Using Art to Communicate Science” at The Nature Conservancy’s Global Science Gathering.

I was quite nervous because this is the first time I created and led a workshop by myself. However, I tested the prototype workshop with my dearest friends at the Humphries Lab. I got great advice that improved the direction and content of the workshop.

At the actual workshop, it was humbling and inspiring to see everyone’s sci-comm sketches and discussions. As a junior scientist, I was awestruck by the fact that everyone followed my instructions and tips and really pushed the boundaries of creativity and comfort zones.

Due to the success of the sci-comm workshop at the Global Science Gathering, I was invited by The Nature Conservancy Indonesia (YKAN) to host the same workshop for the Indonesia team.

More than 50 people showed up (and stayed). It was such a humbling and exhilarating experience. Despite leading the workshop at 10 PM EST, I felt so energized at the end.

Please let me know if you’d like me to host a similar workshop!

The Knauss Fellowship

What is the Knauss Fellowship?
Let’s break down the Knauss Fellowship

The Knauss Fellowship (according to its website) is a one year opportunity for US graduate students with an interest in ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources and in the national policy decisions affecting those resources to work in the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government. This fellowship is granted by NOAA Sea Grant and is open to all nationalities as long as the applicant is attending a US-based institution.

Examples of placements within the legislative and executive branch.

 How does it work?

Each year, there are different host offices in both the executive and legislative branch. Once Knauss finalists are sorted into respective branches, then a match-making process begins. It is called ‘Placement Week’. In 2020, placement week became virtual (because of COVID) and the placement week for finalists in the legislative branch won’t happen until January 2021 (because of inauguration). The placement week functions more like a match making, so finalists will definitely get a host office. The office or position may just not be the top choice.

If the questions sound dumb- I actually haven’t even gone through my placement week yet.

Where did I end up?

On February 2021, I was placed in the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Science, and Technology Committee; Ocean, Fisheries, Climate Change, and Manufacturing Subcommittee (Democrat)!

Six months later, I’m ready to share my experiences so far and what it means to be a legislative fellow.

Read more of my experiences in the Sea Grant Knauss Blog! Sneak peak on the day in the life of a legislative fellow below.

Snapper Tales

A children’s book project

One of the illustrated pages that may or may not make it into the final version of the book.

My first children’s book, “Snapper Tales” is based on my dissertation research on deep-water snappers. Readers will follow the journey of a young snapper, Ellie (name TBD), as she navigates the deep waters to find her school. She discovered that there are SO many red snappers, but which one is her school? With the help from her new friends, she relinquishes her fears and embraced this adventure instead to find her place in the deep-waters.

Cast of the book characters!
Another scene from the book! This time a little bit dramatic.

I’m so excited to announce that Binatang Press has accepted my book proposal and we are working on the contract and book details! The book will be published in both English and Bahasa Indonesia. Stay tuned for more updates.

Fishery Science 101

nutshellFishery science is often confused with its cousin subject: marine biology. They are similar and related but not identical. Like most branches in science, everything is connected. In the realm of fisheries science itself, there are numerous foci that one can study. However, to elucidate the differences and similarities between marine biology and fisheries science, I will use fisheries management as a example of fisheries science. Marine biology is typically associated with underwater research– scuba diving in coral reefs, observing multitude of fishes in azure waters, tagging whales… etc. This is not incorrect, but let’s take it a step further and explore the intersection between the aforementioned examples with fisheries science.

venn diagram of fisheries

As an analogy, imagine fish in the ocean as assets. In the corporate world, financial asset managers have the responsibility to manage investments. In doing so, the asset manager will make purchases as short-term sacrifices, in order to generate profits as the long-term goal. Similarly, as an exhaustible resource, fish in the ocean needs careful management that calculates costs and benefits of different options. As you can imagine, in reality, the managing of fish abundance (fish stocks) is a complex and delicate process. Millions of people depend on fishing and fishing related activities for their livelihood and their food source. Even if a proposed management method sounds good on paper, sometimes the socio-political conditions does not allow for that method to be executed. For example, although stopping fishing will definitely increase fish abundance and biomass, you cannot just tell every single fisher to stop fishing all together. It is not feasible and the amount of social revolt will not make it into a sustainable course of action in the long term.

“…because managing fish is pretty much managing people.”

Therefore the study of fisheries encompasses everything from fish to table, economics, social and political science. In a matter of fact, fisheries science put an emphasis on people; because managing fish is pretty much managing people. By the end of the day it is about humans and our relationship with our environment. Fish stocks and ocean ecosystem health is a byproduct of our judgement, decisions and actions.

To make things more complicated, to deliver good management suggestions, we need to quantify certain aspects of the fishery such as how much fish is left, how fast they propagate, how much we are harvesting every year, how fishing affects the population, etc. This is where our cousin, marine biology steps in. More “mariney-biologyey” topics such as looking at genetic connectivity between two fish stocks can help fill in the gaps to make an informed strategy on how to manage the fishery. So in short, fisheries science is a nice mush of everything related to fish. Depending on the focus, you can have a scientist focusing on the intersection between social conditions of a fishing village and fish stocks or the intersection between size of maturity of different species and fishing gear technology. The variation is endless! I am most intrigued by the direct and relevant application of fisheries, and also the versatility.

Similar to human population census, we conduct fishery stock assessments to learn about the condition of a fish stock. We are continuously improving our methods of data collection and assessment methods to generate the best assessment.