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Indonesia’s new president, ministers have big plans for fish

What does Jokowi have in mind for marine development and conservation?

Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo (or Jokowi, as he’s popularly called) spent half his 11-minute inaugural address thanking God, his partisans and the citizenry at large. For the rest of the speech he talked about oceans.

“The seas, the bays, and the straits are the future of our civilization,” he declared, which we have ”too long turned our backs on.” He urged his people now “to face the waves [and] get on board the ship of the Republic of Indonesia,” with himself as captain.

Was this just rhetorical flourish, or does it portend a new seriousness about maritime management? Indonesia is home to the world’s longest coastline and two-thirds of global coral and fish diversity. But stewardship of these resources has been lax.

It was only 13 years ago that Indonesia got around to establishing its Fisheries and Marine Affairs Ministry, one of the country’s youngest. Yet foreign and domestic fish poaching is still rampant, as is underreported fish catch. And fisheries only account for 2 percent of the country’s GDP, despite employing 20 percent of the population.

A traditional fishing boat in Java, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

How, then, will Jokowi “face the waves?” With a new focus on marine diversity and sustainability? Or an assertion of sovereignty against foreign encroachments such as China’s recent sallies into Philippine and Vietnamese waters? Or a push to wring more national income out of marine food products and tourism?

Early indications suggest that the priority will be economic, judging from his first move as president – structuring and hiring his 34-man cabinet.

For starters, Jokowi created a new coordinating minister position tasked with running “maritime affairs.” In a Jakarta Post article in late September, one of Jokowi’s transition team deputies laid out the five administration goals for this office: expanding maritime diplomacy, supporting “culture,” increasing security (with special emphasis on illegal fishing), creating an “integrated maritime system,” and boosting fish production for the domestic market.

It is too early in the new administration’s term to know whether this boost in production will come from capturing wild fish from Indonesia’s already depleted near shore waters, sending an under-equipped fleet to the ocean or expanding and incentivizing aquaculture operations.

However, Jokowi’s pick of maritime coordinating minister, Indroyono Soesilo, is a troubling sign. Until last week, Soesilo headed up the international Food and Agricultural Organization’s Aquaculture and Fisheries division. In editorials he has written in the last year, he has called for Indonesia to become “one of the big three world aquaculture powers.”

The country is quickly making advancements towards this goal, with major aquaculture expansion over the past 10 years. According to national statistics, 70 percent of the fish “produced” in 2013 was farmed, compared to the 17 percent a decade before. The amount of wild fish caught hasn’t plummeted, but farming has grown ten-fold between 2003 and 2013. In 2012, Indonesia became the world’s largest supplier of tilapia. By 2013, farmed shrimp accounted for much of Indonesia’s national revenue from seafood exports.

So, it is not a wild leap to guess that the new maritime ministry and existing fishery ministry’s method for “boosting production” means more aquaculture. This is troubling news for the protection of mangroves and the marine animals living in them, as well as for small pelagic fish.
Aquaculture operations require brackish water, naturally found on the coast. Most of Indonesia’s remaining undeveloped coastline is occupied by mangroves, dense thickets of trees and shrubs specialized to live partially submerged in seawater. Mangroves help prevent coastal erosion, and serve as important nurseries for many marine species. Yet, despite their ecological and economic importance, mangroves are disappearing.

A mangrove in Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

According to a 2001 study published in Bioscience, the world lost 35 percent of its mangroves in the last 20 years of the twentieth century, largely because of land conversion for aquaculture, agriculture, and urbanization.

In addition to losing their habitat through mangrove conversion, native fish are directly harvested for the aquaculture industry from already overfished populations. Fish, shrimp and lobsters reared in aquaculture operations are fed pellets that are two-thirds cereal and one-third “marine-derived protein” – basically the heads and guts from “trash fish” species like herring, sardines and anchovies.

“I’d be happier if I can see this administration considering aquaculture with the ecosystem in mind,” said Taufik Alimi, of conservation outfit RARE, who worried that the new ministers’ vision was too production-oriented. “Right now we only hear about improving fishermen’s livelihood and fishery production.”

What appears immediately positive about Jokowi’s decision to create a new maritime coordinating minister is that he may streamline the monitoring of illegal fishing.

A half-ton of tuna, marlin, and other fish species caught in the open Pacific Ocean. Some of these are bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus), a species listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Despite being considered overfished in the Pacific by fisheries commissions, FAO data shows bigeye tuna harvests have increased steadily, with more than 450,000 metric tons caught in 2012 alone. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

The national fishery ministry, defense ministry and regional and village police forces have all been tasked with reporting and arresting foreign fishing vessels that lack the correct papers, or domestic fishermen using illegal methods such as bombs and cyanide. However, to date, enforcement has been porous and under-equipped, in part because funding has been spread out. The biggest victims of bad enforcement have been tuna and coral fish, from highly valued groupers to parrotfish and other species gathered for subsistence.

What capacities do the new maritime coordinating minister and the fishery and marine affairs ministers have to achieve this greater protection against poaching? Jokowi’s pick of national fishery minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, may be an indication. Pudjiastuti is CEO of a fish exporting business and Indonesia’s best-known bush plane taxi service. Surprisingly, the 49-year-old started her career as a high school dropout from a West Javanese fishing town. As an enterprising entrepreneur from a fishing community herself, Pudjiastuti may have the potential to do big things.

In one of her first interviews,fishery minister Pudjiastuti highlighted the “huge potential” of the “yet to be tapped” fisheries sector. “It’s like a mouse dying of hunger in a barn full of rice,” she said.

On his first day at work, Indroyono’s office was handed the responsibility of overseeing the Transportation Ministry, the Tourism Ministry, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry and the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry. Seaport development (with finance from private investors) topped Indroyono’s to-do list.

Next up was providing subsidized fuel and insurance for fishing vessels, then promoting cruises and sources of energy other than offshore oil and gas.

As for their impact on the fish and the health of the seas, it’s up to how Pudjiastuti, Soesilo and Jokowi decide to steer this “ship of the Republic of Indonesia.”