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Fish magnet boom creates headaches in Indonesia’s war on overfishing

A juvenile batfish at a a fish aggregating device some 20 kilometers outside Lhaviyani Atoll, Maldives. Photo by Hani Amir/Flickr

  • Recent comments by Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti indicate the government will crack down on fish aggregating devices, which have proliferated in the Southeast Asian nation’s waters.
  • Experts agree the issue deserves more attention from Jakarta but urge President Joko Widodo’s administration to consider the impact a purge of the devices will have on small fishers.
  • Minister Pudjiastuti has said that many of the devices are owned by large companies.

Made by human hands, thousands of floating structures that attract fish speckle Indonesian waters throughout the archipelago. Some drift. Some stand anchored to the ocean bottom.

These fish aggregating devices — or FADs, in the parlance of the fisheries industry — mimic natural objects such as logs or dead whales. Fish congregate at these locations, making it easier to catch them by fishermen.

One type of FAD consists of indigenous materials including bamboo and coconut fronds. A steel or fiberglass buoy is the main component of another kind. Floats that hold a vertically hanging fishing net with weights at the bottom compose a third.

“The use of FADs by the small-scale fishermen is very important for their day-to-day livelihood,” said Aditya Utama Surono, executive director of the Indonesian Communities and Fisheries Foundation (MDPI). The Bali-based nonprofit advocates for sustainable fishing practices.

A consensus of Indonesian and global experts agree with Surono.

Beyond that, however, a sea of confusion has engulfed the issue of Indonesian FADs.

The national government does not consistently regulate them. An accurate database of their total number, location and type does not exist.

A fish aggregating device floats in Indonesian waters. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

And a series of statements last month by Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti that “FADs, in whatever name or form, are an intrusion” and “must be eradicated” has been interpreted in multiple ways.

Peter Mous, for example, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Indonesia Fisheries Conservation Program, said, “It’s not clear to me whether the minister means to outright ban” rumpons — the Indonesian name for FADs.

But Surono and Roza Yusfiandayani, a professor in Bogor Agricultural University’s Department of Fisheries and Marine Science, understood that Pudjiastuti’s announcement encompassed all FADs.

“I don’t agree that all FADs should be eradicated,” Yusfiandayani said after the minister spoke, Mongabay-Indonesia reported last month. They increase revenue for local fishermen, Yusfiandayani said.

“If you want to get rid of them, stick to the ones owned by foreigners,” the professor said. “It’s better not to mess with the ones owned by local fishermen, because they bring a lot of benefits.”

Surono concurred.

“Regulation by the government is not considering the small-scale fishermen,” he said.

FADs constitute “the main livelihood” of those people, whose average incomes range between $500 and $700 per month, Surono said. Clearing all rumpons “is not a good move,” he said. “Regulation that is based on incorrect data would be very dangerous.”

Several Indonesian and international fisheries organizations are currently collecting data on Indonesian FADs and their impacts.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia is one that plans to create a map that shows the distribution of Indonesia’s FADs, said Craig Proctor, an organization fisheries scientist.

Co-funded by the organization’s oceans and atmosphere section and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the FAD study began in 2012 and is scheduled to conclude at the end of June, said Proctor, who is based in Australia.

Yellowfin and skipjack tuna are the most abundant fish recorded around Indonesian FADs, accounting for about 90 percent of the total catch, said Andrew Harvey, special adviser for Indonesia for the UK-based International Pole & Line Foundation.

That nonprofit promotes “socially and environmentally responsible pole-and-line and handline tuna fisheries around the world,” according to its website.

The pros of FADs for Indonesian fishermen are many.

Surono cited lower fuel costs — reductions due to anchored FADs can reach up to 30 percent, said Harvey, who is based in Jakarta. Proctor pointed to less search time and “higher confidence in returning with a profitable catch.”

Anchored FADs, in particular, have yielded benefits, Harvey said.

“Catch volumes within the Maldives pole-and-line fishery are 114 percent” higher per day for vessels that fish around an FAD compared to vessels that don’t, he said. In Reunion, catches increased 143 percent between 1987 and 1995, according to a review of two studies carried out during that period.

“Anchored FADs have the potential to make a valuable contribution toward enhancing food security and livelihoods of fishing communities,” Harvey said. “The safety of fishers is also enhanced when they fish near FADs, providing a fixed location should search and rescue operations be required.”

A fish aggregating device in Langalanga Lagoon, Solomon Islands. Photo by Wade Fairley for WorldFish/Flickr

But The Nature Conservancy’s Mous said, “The number of FADs is currently too high.”

Because FADs “generally make fishing more efficient,” Mous said, the risk increases of fish stocks becoming overexploited “if appropriate management isn’t in place.”

Harvey cited a 2011 joint survey by the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and the Australia Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. It found at least 3,858 FADs existed in Indonesian waters — likely an underestimation due to “significant data limitations,” Harvey said.

Guillermo Moreno, fisheries manager of the MDPI, went further.

“The numbers cannot be estimated as most are illegal and have been deployed secretly,” Moreno said.

Whatever the total, however, “it is probably a matter of density,” Mous said. “At low densities, FADs can help small-scale and industrial fishers to save fuel without affecting the ecology of the ocean, but at very high density these FADs may increase operational expenses while impairing the functioning of the ocean ecosystem.”

Proctor said Indonesian waters have a “high density of FADs.”

A meeting on FADs organized by The Nature Conservancy is scheduled to take place in Bali on Feb. 21, Mous said.

Moreno summed up the negative consequences of Indonesia’s FAD dynamic.

“FADs, like any other gear, need to be managed and the problem right now is that they are not,” Moreno said.

That lack of enforcement has resulted in “too high a catch of juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna, the construction of FADs using non-biodegradable materials, and illegal fishing,” Proctor said.

Harvey also noted that FADs could facilitate rapid stock depletion, and be a source of marine debris and pollution and a potential hazard to navigation and shipping.

Local fishers check a fish aggregating device in East Timor. Photo by Dave Mills for WorldFish/Flickr

FADs contributing to exhausting the populations of yellowfin and bigeye tuna is a concern among experts. The snag is fishermen’s hauls include too many juveniles of those species, robbing the creatures of the chance to mature and spawn.

A 2016 report co-authored by Proctor found that “a large proportion of the skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna landed from the FAD-based fisheries” at two Indonesian ports “were juvenile fish.”

The two-year study examined Indonesian tuna fisheries that used anchored FADs.

“Current stock assessments suggest [yellowfin and bigeye tuna] are fully exploited and possibly overfished in some areas,” according to a 2015 factsheet co-written by Proctor and published by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Moreno added that “the catch of undersized fish is ubiquitous” at FADs.

Minister Pudjiastuti’s answer to those consequences last month was, “We need everyone’s support to get rid of these FADs. The government can’t monitor them all. So if you know of an area where FADs have been permitted by the local government, report it to us. It’s illegal.”

Pudjiastuti also said FADs could divert the movement of tuna away from coastal areas, where local fishermen operate.

She added that a task force is investigating FADs in the Ceram Sea — “a large number of which are strongly suspected to be owned by large companies,” she said.

Moreno said often it is problematic determining whether the owners of FADs are individuals or companies.

“Fishermen may work independently but sell almost exclusively to a company,” Moreno said.

The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard vessel recovers an illegal fish aggregating device located in the Palau exclusive economic zone that presented a hazard to navigation on Sept. 3, 2016. Fishermen use well-lit FADs to attract fish to one spot to catch, an illegal practice in Palau. Photo by Chief Petty Officer Sara Mooers for the U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr

Eliminating the devices in the Ceram Sea as well as in the waters off East Nusa Tenggara province and certain parts of Sulawesi island would allow the fish to swim closer to the coast, Pudjiastuti said.

Legislation regarding FAD deployment does exist, Mous said.

A 2014 law required that FADs must be placed a minimum of 10 nautical miles from each other, he said.

And Proctor said that current Indonesian regulations require registration of each FAD by the owner, be they individuals or companies.

But, as Moreno pointed out, “until now, most of the laws have yet to be enforced,” Proctor said. “The implementation and enforcement of the regulations has not been a success.”

Banner image: A juvenile batfish at a fish aggregating device some 20 kilometers outside Lhaviyani Atoll, Maldives. Photo by Hani Amir/Flickr

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