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Amid lack of enforcement, fishermen take the fight to blast fishing

Lutfi Bullah, head of the fishing association that set up Lambangan’s marine protected area, dangles a line on the boundaries of the zone. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

  • Indonesia’s ban on blast fishing has gone unenforced in some parts of Sulawesi island, local fishermen say.
  • Two villages on Sulawesi’s eastern peninsula have responded to the lack of enforcement by declaring their own marine protected areas. The zones are now being patrolled by local fishing groups, but the province needs to sign off on them before legal action can be taken against violators.
  • A local NGO called Japesda is helping the villages protect their waters.

LAMBANGAN and UWEDIKAN, Indonesia — “At first, I saw some spinefoot fish, about 50 of them. I was smoking out on the water.”

It was midday three years ago, says Farjan Delong, and he remembers having taken his boat to Lambangan, a village in Banggai district on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, where dense schools of fish still crowded around thriving coral. Crouched on his small boat, he recalls, he lifted a bottle of fertilizer and lit a fuse above his head.

Despite national laws against blast fishing, poor enforcement has meant fishermen like Farjan have been able augment their catches while destroying reefs across the Indonesian archipelago, home some of the world’s richest fisheries.

But before Farjan, a 22-year-old father of three, could hurl the bomb at the school of fish, it exploded, throwing him overboard. With the fishermen around him stunned from shock, he pulled himself back into the boat to find his left hand was no longer attached to his body.

Maybe the fuse had been cut too short. Maybe cigarette ash had entered the bottle. Maybe he had gotten careless, having used bombs since middle school.

Farjan hasn’t used bombs since his maiming three years ago, but fishermen on the eastern peninsula of Sulawesi, a star-shaped island larger than Florida, have continued to blast fish and coral out of the water along coastal villages — except in Lambangan on its northern coast and Uwedikan on the southern.

Last year, amid uneven enforcement of Indonesia’s ban on blast fishing, local fishing groups in Lambangan and Uwedikan started enforcing their own protected area. Any fisherman found using bombs or trawl nets or cutting down mangrove trees will be detained, they say. The protected areas have been formalized through regulations issued by the two village governments, but these won’t carry any legal force unless the Central Sulawesi provincial fisheries office signs off on them. When that happens, the local fishing groups will be able to impose fines.

“We used to fight the fishermen who came from other villages,” said Lutfi Bullah, 42, the head of Lambangan’s fishermen’s group. “This is our protected area. Now no one uses bombs here.”

Farjan Delong, now 25, lost his left arm in a blast-fishing accident when a fertilizer bomb in a bottle he was holding exploded too early. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

Bombs away

Indonesia, home to thousands of islands, produces more fish than any country but China, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Most of the Southeast Asian nation’s fishermen are small operators, selling their catch to companies through middlemen.

Blast fishing carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a 2 billion rupiah ($132,000) fine. But it also gives fishermen an easy way to boost their catch, especially in a country where enforcing marine laws can be difficult. Indonesia has one of the world’s longest coastlines, and there is no specialized agency to enforce marine law at the source.

“Average sentences for bombing have been very low, only under one year,” said Abdi Suhufan, the national coordinator of Destructive Fishing Watch, an NGO. “Land-based monitoring should be strengthened because bombers start on land.”

When police search for evidence of blast fishing, they look for illegal fertilizer. To make a bomb, a fisherman fills a glass or plastic bottle with fertilizer and attaches a fuse. He then lights it before throwing it at a school of fish. Devices can also use sedatives, cyanide or dynamite. After the explosion, the job is easy: scoop up the floating dead fish. In the process, fish habitats are blown to bits, along with untargeted sea life. Coral reefs can take decades to recover, if at all.

“If the coral is destroyed, then definitely the fish will stay far away,” said Mohamad Sayuti Djau, a lecturer at Muhammadiyah University of Gorontalo, in northern Sulawesi, who studies coral. “That’s the place where they find protection, find food, spawn, but it’s not there anymore.”

Japesda, an environmental group based in Gorontalo, enlisted Djau’s help to understand the threat to the coral and fish habitat on the island’s eastern peninsula. After studying nine villages there for several months, they recommended that Lambangan and Uwedikan, the two most at-risk areas, establish their own patrol zones that banned bombs, trawl nets and cutting of mangrove trees.

A 2016 study published by the nation’s fisheries ministry found that marine protected areas increased the population of fish up to five times compared to unprotected areas.

“To protect the environment, we need to manage our own area,” Lambangan village head Marwan Zaman said. “This is not just a village problem, it’s a national problem.”

A fisherman boards his boat on a floating fish farm in Lambangan village. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

Bottom-up policymaking

Each area has become de facto protected by village residents there, but to enforce fines and to empower fishermen to make arrests, each fishing community needs to get approval for their protected area from the provincial government.

Japesda is guiding the two village’s fishermen’s groups through the process. Already they’ve had setbacks at the subdistrict and district levels, with the applications redirected to higher authorities. Not every government official has been receptive to the idea, because the problem was supposed to have been solved in 2007, when the Banggai district government set up its own protected area that covers both villages.

“I showed [the district government] the pictures of the coral underwater,” Djau said. “They responded, ‘we’ve already created a protected area’ and they even said they’ve already banned [blast fishing]. Regarding whether I felt heard, at least there was a response from the village.”

Mahumd, a Banggai district fisheries official, said the district government had scant information about the area because authority over the proteced zone had been moved to the provincial level a few years earlier. But local fishermen say the bombing and use of sedatives hasn’t stopped, because no one’s enforced the ban.

After Japesda’s assessment, the NGO helped form a union of fishermen and set up signposts around the area that explained what was forbidden.

“There were signs, but when I saw them, they were stripped to their frames, useless,” said Ali Hanafi, 56, the head of Uwedikan’s fishing association. “I told Japesda, these don’t work!”

Ali Hanafi, head of Uwedikan’s fishing group, steers his boat through the village’s marine protected area. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

Zaman, the newly elected head of Lambangan, ran on a platform to protect the village’s coral. He has directed funding to build floating barriers to keep away intruders, and to set up a floating fish farm as an example of an alternative to blast fishing. Some of the fish from the farm are returned to the water to repopulate areas depleted by years of blast fishing.

“Lambangan still has a potential for good fishing,” Djau said, “because compared to Uwedikan, it’s still cared for.”

Fishermen in Uwedikan have a more difficult job. The protected area they want to enshrine into law is seven times larger than in Lambangan, and the coral is 80 percent destroyed, according to Japesda. Unlike Lambangan, however, the area was classified as a protected area by the district in 2007.

“Our recommendations were accepted by the community there, but there needs to be a solution from the government that specifically deals with blast fishing,” Djau said.

Competitive advantage

Fishermen in Lambangan said it was hard to resist the urge to use bombs, because the catch was so much bigger.

“Do I feel like I’m at a disadvantage? Of course, because bombs destroy the area but they get you a lot more fish,” Lambangan resident Rijal said, adding that he has never used bombs, for fear of suffering an injury.

Each time he goes out on the water, Rijal catches roughly 10 fish by dangling a line below his boat. Residents of Lambangan and Uwedikan remember just a year ago when they could still see bombs used on the water and markets were teeming with fish “killed twice”: once in the water, once in the pan.

“Now there are fewer fish at the market,” said Farjan, the fisherman who lost his hand. He works as a market vendor now. “When there are a lot, you know that someone used a bomb to get them.” Farjan and his wife no longer enjoy an income as stable as when he could catch dozens of fish with a single bomb. He can name three other people who have lost hands, and many others in his village who have been injured from blast fishing. But without using bombs, many families lose income.

“In our opinion, blast fishing in Indonesia can be overcome by two methods, namely: economic approach and law enforcement,” said Abdi, the NGO activist. “According to our research, the root of this practice is indeed poverty and greed. The economic approach means that there needs to be a livelihood provided that is similarly or more profitable.”

“Basically the government needs to not only ban the practice but give a solution,” Djau said. “Give training to the community on the coast, so if they don’t have as much fish there, what will they do?”

Japesda’s recommendation to local communities included taking advantage of the tourism potential in the coral and mangroves still thriving.

“If you’re asking who benefits from the protected area, of course the answer is everyone here,” Lutfi said. “It’s just that for the fishermen, it’s their livelihood.”

Banner: Lutfi Bullah, head of the fishing association that set up Lambangan’s marine protected area, dangles a line on the boundaries of the zone. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

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