When the Indonesian government announced plans to make the country’s fishing industry sustainable in early 2019, Arifsyah Nasution welcomed the news. The head of Greenpeace’s ocean campaign in Southeast Asia has long been sounding the alarm about endangered fish stocks in Indonesian waters. But he is skeptical that the situation will change much by 2025.
With more than 7 million tons of catches per year, Indonesia is the second largest fishing country after China. Most of it is for domestic consumption, with the population of 270 million eating more than three times as much fish and seafood as the world average.
This has far-reaching consequences: most fish stocks in Indonesia are either completely depleted or already overexploited. According to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, 90% of Indonesian boats get their catch from areas that are already overfished and overcrowded with boats.
Indonesian waters are home to 37% of the world’s marine species, many of which are threatened by fishing. Shrimps, for example, are already overfished in more than two-thirds of Indonesian waters, and are therefore becoming increasingly scarce. Quotas have already been exhausted in other parts of the country as well.
The drop in stocks is alarming. The problem is not easy to solve, however, because often the economic aspect, the volume of sales, is the focus of attention. Nasution told DW “it’s not about global market demand, it’s about the survival of the Indonesian people.”
Subsidies as drivers of overfishing
Grants in The fishing industry in Indonesia – such as lower fuel prices and tax deductions – have also contributed to a steady increase in catches over the past decades.
Many scientists therefore criticize them: harmful subsidies can lead to overfishing, loss of biodiversity and destruction of marine areas. This happens, for example, when fishing is undertaken beyond sustainable levels or when subsidies encourage harmful fishing practices. More than 60% of global subsidies to the fishing industry are potentially harmful to the oceans, according to a study by the University of British Columbia in Canada.
The World Trade Organization has been advocating for the abolition of harmful subsidies to the fishing industry since 2001, but has so far been unsuccessful. “Two decades is too long to end the subsidies that fund the relentless overexploitation of our oceans. […] We need these rules for the sake of the environment, food security and livelihoods around the world,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in a speech at the occasion of World Oceans Day in June.
Turning subsidies from harmful to beneficial
Indonesia so far subsidizes fishing more than other developing countries, spending more than $932m (€825m) in 2018. Peru, which catches almost as much, spends only a third of what Indonesia in subsidies for the fishing industry.
Indonesia is spending more on capacity building, harmful subsidies (60%) in total US dollars, but, as a percentage of the budget, Peru’s expenditures are much higher. These capacity building grants involve support for building and renovating vessels as well as larger projects such as the development of fishing harbours.
Although small-scale fishing operations account for almost 95% of the sector, experts say it is mainly the big industry fishing fleets that benefit from the subsidies.
A fisherman dries his catch in a village near Jakarta, Indonesia
On the other hand, targeted and beneficial subsidies can help maintain biodiversity and protect ecosystems. In Indonesia, about a third of grants have so far been used for this purpose. Part of the funds went to promoting marine protected areas, which aim to protect threatened ecosystems from human exploitation.
A successful example is Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia, where several marine protected areas were designated in 2004. They now cover 4.6 million hectares (11.3 million acres) and are considered the most biodiverse protected area in the world, home to over 1,600 species. of fish and hundreds of corals. The abundance of fish attracts many tourists — but also a few poachers, who have repeatedly caused damage by fishing with dynamite, for example.
Worldwide, however, Raja Ampat is seen as a success story for cooperation between NGOs, fishing communities and the Indonesian government. NGOs have focused more on research and communication to raise public awareness and inform stakeholders. The government, for example, has focused more on setting up structures such as a watch force to protect the area.
Raja Ampat, home to 75% of the world’s known stone corals, is considered the richest coral reef on the planet
Protected areas cannot be established everywhere, and it is not yet possible to completely eliminate harmful subsidies. With entire industries dependent on these funds, there is a risk of economic collapse without them, said Simon Funge-Smith, senior fisheries officer at FAO’s Asia-Pacific regional office in Bangkok, adding that the consequences would be far-reaching. . “The loss of jobs, the loss of livelihoods is political dynamite.”
Nearly 7 million people are employed in the fishing industry in Indonesia. If the government suddenly stopped all harmful subsidies, small-scale fishers in particular would suffer, according to Indonesia for Global Justice, an NGO that advocates for a fair trade system.
The government must therefore plan carefully, gradually converting harmful subsidies into beneficial ones while continuing to ensure the economic viability of the industry, Funge-Smith said.
Politics hinders sustainable development
It’s easier said than done. In recent years, there has been little continuity within the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Since 2019 alone, the responsible minister has changed several times. As a result, a ban on particularly harmful trawls was temporarily lifted in November 2020 before being reintroduced in July 2021.
Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesian Fisheries Minister from 2014 to 2019, strongly advocated for sustainable fisheries and marine conservation
Nevertheless, in order to encourage responsible fisheries management, “all stakeholders, including civil society, must continue and focus on advocating for Indonesia’s fisheries issues at local, national and international levels,” Nasution said. of Greenpeace.
After all, he said, the department’s knowledge of sustainable fishing has grown significantly in recent years. However, leadership problems within the ministry and the government’s emphasis on attracting investment from abroad have hampered these efforts. Foreign investment is mainly profit-driven, which increases the pressure on marine resources.
Starting in 2014, the Indonesian government used harsh methods against illegal boats, sinking more than 300 foreign and domestic ships in four years. The number of foreign fishing boats fell by a quarter, but local fishermen were more active, according to a to study by the ministry and US and Indonesian researchers from various universities. The authors observed an overall recovery of fish stocks at this time, but noted the risk that this could be wiped out by a large increase in local fishing.
From 2014, the Indonesian Navy sank hundreds of fishing boats for illegal fishing
No data, no control
Another crucial problem in the fight against overfishing is the lack of reliable data to monitor compliance with regulations and make the decisions necessary to protect the ocean. The sheer size of the Indonesian archipelago, with its 17,500 islands and more than half a million fishing boats, makes surveillance tricky. And most boats don’t have electronic devices on board to help with tracking.
With Indonesia containing over 17,500 islands and 60% of the territory covered by water, fishing boats are difficult to monitor
Several pilot projects could provide a solution. One of them is FishFace, which automatically logs catches and species using connected cameras on board. The technology enables real-time remote monitoring.
Such developments give observers, including Funge-Smith, reason to be optimistic, even if Indonesia ends up missing its stated goal of sustainable fishing by 2025. “Any progress towards that goal is tremendous,” said he declared.
DW’s Arti Ekawati contributed to this piece.
Edited by: Anke Rasper, Gianna Grün and Martin Kübler.