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Indonesia’s new fisheries minister may go easy on trawl nets, poachers’ boats

  • Edhy Prabowo, Indonesia’s new fisheries minister, has planned a revision on banning unsustainable fishing gear and sinking foreign poaching boats.
  • Both policies were enacted in 2014-2015 by former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti who said the efforts would recover Indonesia’s marine resources and protect the ecosystem.
  • Edhy’s plans, however, have met backlash from maritime observers saying the move would only benefit large-scale fishery instead of small-scale fishers that make up much of Indonesian fisheries.
  • Environmentalists also say relaxing these regulations could reintroduce the pressures of overfishing and foreign poaching to Indonesian waters.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s new fisheries minister looks set to unwind hard-fought reforms implemented by his predecessor, in a series of moves critics say will favor large-scale fishing companies over small fishers.

Edhy Prabowo, who took office in October, previously said he would review the regulations put in place by the former minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, including bans on the use of trawl and seine nets, known locally as cantrang, and the sinking of foreign fishing vessels seized in Indonesian waters.

“For cantrang, some have asked me to allow it, while others have asked to ban it because it damages the environment,” Edhy told reporters in Jakarta on Nov. 8. “I’m going to evaluate it. I promise I will have a dialog with the people.”

He said separately that he would rather repurpose seized foreign fishing boats for other uses, including redistributing them to local fishers, for academic research, or as floating hospitals.

“But that doesn’t mean we will never sink these vessels anymore,” Edhy added.

Indonesian authorities detonate and sink foreign fishing boats caught poaching in the country’s waters. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

The ban on cantrang, considered a type of unsustainable fishing gear, was imposed in 2015 by Susi in a bid to protect the coastal areas that serve as fish spawning sites. Such nets can sweep large volumes of water from the ocean surface all the way down to the seafloor, and as a result have a high level of by-catch.

But the ban drew fierce criticism from some fishers, particularly along the northern coast of Java, who have long depended on these types of nets. In 2018, Susi relented and gave the fishers of that region a grace period until February 2020, and financial aid, to help in their transition to more sustainable equipment.

As minister, Susi was perhaps best known for her policy, adopted shortly after taking office in 2014, of blowing up and sinking foreign fishing vessels that had been seized poaching in Indonesia’s waters. This particular regulation was hugely popular domestically, with Susi insisting that it was about ensuring a sustainable fishery. But the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, to whom Susi ostensibly reported, was not a fan of the policy. He and others, including an association for tuna fisheries, called for an end to sinking the boats and instead auctioning them off or gifting them to small-scale fishers.

Edhy, who now reports to the same coordinating minister, acknowledged the criticism of the regulations and said he would evaluate them and decide their fate by the end of this year.

Susi Pudjiastuti, right, and Edhy Prabowo. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Edhy’s suggestion that the regulations could be rolled back prompted a backlash from marine observers, who warned of the dangers to Indonesia’s fish stocks from such a move.

“He will set back Indonesia’s maritime and fisheries sector if the regulation banning trawl and seine nets is weakened,” said Susan Herawati, secretary-general of the local NGO People’s Coalition for Justice in Fisheries (KIARA).

Susan said she suspected the commercial fishing industry was behind much of the criticism against the ban on unsustainable fishing gear. If big fishing outfits were permitted to trawl, that would put small fishers at a distinct disadvantage, she said.

“The use of trawl clearly violates the spirit of justice — small-scale fishermen will struggle to catch fish,” she said, adding that this could spark conflicts between large-scale and small-scale fishers.

Susan called on Edhy to instead strengthen the ministry’s monitoring of the use of unsustainable gear and boost ongoing efforts to help fishers still using cantrang to switch to more sustainable equipment. More than 1,400 boats in a single district on the northern coast of Java still use some kind of trawl net, according to advocacy group Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia.

Environmentalists have also warned that plans to auction off seized foreign fishing boats or give them to local fishers could prove counterproductive by giving poachers an opportunity to buy back the boats.

“There’s nothing wrong with sinking the boats all these years,” said Abdi Suhufan, the national coordinator at DFW Indonesia. “It’s a form of law enforcement and a way of protecting Indonesia’s sovereignty. Our advice for the new fisheries minister is to focus on drafting new maritime regulations that are innovative and sustainable rather than being busy with evaluating and revising [existing] policies.”

To that end, Edhy has promised to work on improving the fisheries industry, creating jobs, adding value to fish products, boosting exports, and strengthening aquaculture and capture fisheries. Edhy also said he hoped to deepen the partnership between commercial and small-scale fishers, as well as simplify the process for issuing fishing permits.

Indonesia is targeting $6 billion from fish exports in 2020, up from this year’s target of $5.5 billion. The country is also seeking to increase domestic fish consumption to 54.5 kilograms (120 pounds) per person annually by the end of this year.

The fisheries sector has long been important to the food security of the archipelagic nation, with most of Indonesia’s more than 260 million inhabitants living in coastal areas. The country straddles the Pacific and Indian oceans, and hosts large parts of the Coral Triangle, a region with the highest coral and reef fish diversity in the world.

A seine net, known locally as a cantrang. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here, here, and here on our Indonesian site on Nov. 14, 18, and 20, 2019.

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