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Indonesia buckles to protests against seine fishing ban

A purse seiner hauls in a catch. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

  • The Indonesian government has exempted fishermen operating off the north coast of Java from complying with a ban on the use of a particular type of dragnet known locally as cantrang.
  • As part of the program, the government is offering financial aid to fishermen to buy new equipment that reduces bycatch and poses less of a risk of damaging seabed ecosystems.
  • The government’s concession to the group of north Java fishermen falls in line with its own target of boosting fish catches to nearly 10 million tons this year.

JAKARTA — Indonesia has eased off from the full enforcement of a ban on fishing using a controversial type of dragnet known as a seine, following protests by fishermen.

Under a 2015 regulation from the country’s fisheries ministry, the use of a particular type of seine known locally as cantrang was deemed destructive, and fishermen nationwide were given until the start of 2018 to switch to alternative methods of fishing with reduced bycatch and less risk of damaging seabed ecosystems. The government also promised financial aid to help the fishermen swap out their equipment.

But despite the promised subsidy and the transition period of nearly three years, seine fishing remains widespread. Less than a third of owners of the more than 7,200 seine-fishing vessels smaller than 10 gross tonnage (GT) — most of which operate off the northern coast of Java, a region known as Pantura — received financial aid to transition to new equipment, according to the fisheries ministry data from last September. This year alone, meanwhile, there are already 3,900 applications for financial aid from owners of fishing boats this size.

On Jan. 17, fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti announced that the transition period would be extended indefinitely, but only for fishermen operating in the Pantura area — effectively putting the cantrang ban there on hold.

“[The seiners] can take as much time as they need to adopt new fishing equipment,” she said. “But they must truly work on replacing their fishing tools.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, and fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, to his right, meet in Jakarta on Jan. 17 with representatives of fishermen from the northern Java coast protesting the proposed ban on a controversial type of dragnet called a cantrang. Photo courtesy of Presidential Staff Bureau.

The announcement followed a meeting at the State Palace in Jakarta between President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and representatives of thousands of protesters purporting to be fishermen from the northern Java coast.

Fishing communities in Pantura and elsewhere have since 2015 criticized the proposed ban, citing a loss of income and the financial burden of having to buy new types of nets. Many have argued they are still paying off bank loans used to buy their seine nets, which can sweep large volumes of water from the ocean surface all the way down to the seafloor.

Earlier this month, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, to whom Susi reports, suggested that instead of a blanket ban on the practice, cantrang fishing could be allowed in certain locations, including the Pantura region.

“This way, it can be a solution to the nation’s fisheries performance, which has been declining,” he told reporters on Jan. 9. “The president has ordered the fisheries ministry to focus on increasing fish production and export.”

While fish catches have increased — from 6.5 million tons in 2016 to a projected 7.67 million tons in 2017, and a targeted 9.45 million this year — the export value has remained largely flat at around $4 billion a year.

At the meeting in Jakarta, the president struck an agreement with the Pantura protesters on extending the transition period and helping more fishermen gain access to the financial aid program. It was then left to Susi to announce the decision to the thousands of cheering protesters outside.

Thousands of protesters purporting to be fishermen cheer the announcement of an effective suspension to a proposed ban on seine fishing, delivered by fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, in red on the raised platform, outside the State Palace in Jakarta on Jan. 17. Photo courtesy of Indonesian Presidential Staff Bureau.

As part of the transition, the fisheries ministry has deployed a team to monitor the progress of the program and the distribution of the financial aid. It is working closely with several state-owned banks to provide the money, which this year amounts to 1.31 trillion rupiah ($105 million) for boats of 10 to 30 GT.

“The president has contacted the bank directors,” Susi said. “Previously, the facilitation of the financial aid wasn’t working well because it wasn’t consolidated [with the banks]. Hopefully this time it will work [better].”

Susi, best known outside Indonesia for routinely making good on her threat to sink foreign fishing vessels caught poaching in Indonesian waters, said the indefinite extension did not give the Pantura fishermen license to backslide on their obligations under the 2015 regulation. She said her ministry would improve monitoring of fishing fleets to catch any new boats equipped with cantrang, or vessels operating outside permitted fishing zones.

She added she would be strict about ensuring that recipients of financial aid were switching out their seine nets.

“We will continue verifying the fishermen’s data, and I want them to be honest and fair with their details,” Susi said.

“We are committed to sustaining the productivity of Indonesia’s oceans, this is what’s most important,” she added.

Banner image: A purse seiner hauls in a catch. Photo courtesy of C. Ortiz Rojas/NOAA.

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