- Decades of blast fishing have destroyed much of the coral reefs off the Indonesian village of Lora, reducing fish catches.
- Increased law enforcement and NGO advocacy have helped reverse these destructive practices, but other threats loom, including increasingly unpredictable weather conditions and competition from large trawlers.
- A community organization is seeking to have the region zoned as a conservation area.
BOMBANA, Indonesia – Syukur Dullah grew up surrounded by a fringe of unspoiled reef off Lora, before the bombardments decimated the corals near the village in the Indonesian province of Southeast Sulawesi.
“This expanse of coral was colorful – like paradise,” said Syukur, who is now the elected chief of Lora village, in Bombana district in southeast Sulawesi.
Lora also used to maintain a buffer zone of mangroves, which helped ensure food security for the 412 families who live along the village’s 7 kilometers of coastline.
Today this part of the coast is arid and brown, a legacy of deforestation upstream for plantations and explosives dropped on reefs to kill and catch fish.
âEvery time we sat down we could hear the sound of bombs exploding,â Syukur said.
Blast fishing has long been illegal in Indonesia and other coastal and island countries, where millions of people depend on coastal fishing areas for their income and food security.
About 80% of Indonesia’s 2.4 million fishermen operate small boats and fish only near shore, according to Rare, a US-based conservation organization that partners with the fishermen of Lora.
The use of homemade bombs, often made from fertilizer and kerosene, is one of the most destructive forms of fishing in the world, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
Explosives kill indiscriminately, detonating everything from fish eggs to dolphins, while shattering vast swathes of coral reefs already threatened by climate change.
However, increased law enforcement and NGO social work are helping to reduce blast fishing, as well as other destructive practices, such as the use of cyanide.
Syukur said the use of explosives in Lora started to decline about ten years ago.
âI rarely hear it now,â he said. “It’s usually only about once a week.”
The fisherman from Lora Amin, now 69, used to roam the reefs here in the 1980s, dropping fuel bombs – usually in glass bottles or 5 liter (1.3 gallon) jerry cans – in the sea.
He finally gave up the practice almost 20 years ago, but only after being arrested at least five times.
âIn fact, if there were no risks, it would yield a lot of benefits,â he said. Today, Amin catches fish with just a rod and a line.
Bombs on Bombana
While the impact of blast fishing has diminished here, complex environmental and social risks continue to threaten an industry that has supported Lora’s families for centuries.
The presence of larger fishing operations in the waters off Lora has exacerbated tensions, for example, increasing the chances of a flash point between local fishermen and outside trawlers.
“I heard yesterday that three [20-ton haulers] entered the waters here, âSyukur said.
In addition, anecdotal accounts from fishermen indicate that increasingly irregular weather conditions have reduced the number of days they can go to sea.
The arrival of the westerly trade winds, which would normally blow from June, had not yet arrived, Syukur told Mongabay in September.
Husband and wife Arifin and Hadawiah used to fish the coastal waters off Lora, but increasingly intense rainstorms, combined with altered currents, made fishing increasingly difficult, they declared.
Hadawiah said the family earned around 600,000 rupees ($ 42) a month from fishing, placing the household just above the regional poverty line.
âThere used to be a lot of fish,â Arifin said. âIt’s less now, because of the weather. “
Against this backdrop of environmental and social risks, local fishermen came together last year to face the threat to their natural resources.
New coastal management
Karmang moored his boat in Lora Harbor after a long night over Pasi, the only reef off Lora that was spared from destruction from the blast fishery.
Just two years ago, the catch volume of a night’s work would have been much larger, he said, as he unloaded three cork crates of fish, aided by two deckhands.
âIn the past we have caught up to 40 kilograms [88 pounds] fish per person, âhe said. “It’s not like that now.”
Karmang is a founding member of Bahari Sejahtera, a community organization formed in 2020 by six villages to stop the crisis. The group meets to discuss policies aimed at restoring the coastal ecosystem, from planting mangrove seedlings to controlling fish stocks.
Bahari Sejahtera has also started implementing new coastal management guidelines initiated by Rare, the ocean conservation organization, which partners with Indonesia’s ministries of environment and fisheries.
Members of the community organization, like Fitriani, an elementary school teacher, are also providing financial literacy training to help fishermen adjust to dwindling fish stocks.
A lack of access to credit means families here cannot finance larger vessels, or pay higher fuel costs, to make deep-sea fishing economically viable.
Fitriani is often seen trudging along Lora’s muddy roads, knocking on doors offering to help households improve their financial management.
Bahari Sejahtera says he hopes that driving new sustainability initiatives can allow the government to zone the waters off Lora as a conservation area.
Ishaq Warsandi, who heads the conservation office of the Southeast Sulawesi Maritime Bureau, said implementing Rare’s Oceans Management Directive could help achieve this protected status.
Restricting the waters to boats under 5 gross tonnes would also help protect the ecosystem from nickel mining, he said.
âOtherwise it could take the whole sea here,â Ishaq said.
A rim of muddy sediment has now replaced the carbon dioxide-storing mangrove thickets teeming with clams and crabs, an important source of protein for many coastal communities. The coastal reef has been disfigured by the explosions used to catch fish.
Maintaining food security and income depends on reviving Lora’s coastal fishing stocks, Karmang said, with families having only low-paid casual labor to fall back on if fish stocks collapse altogether.
Local fishermen increasingly accept that the viability of their trade depends on decades of environmental damage, he said.
âIf the weather is bad, we have to be farm workers,â Karmang said.
Banner image: Edi Wahid monitors the growth and development of mangrove seedlings planted in damaged mangrove forests. For decades, people have used mangrove trunks for use in the kitchen fireplace. Image by Riza Salman / Mongabay Indonesia.