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‘Just like terrorists’: Indonesia boosts vigilance for blast fishers

A bucket of fish at a market in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

A bucket of fish at a market in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

  • Arrests of fishermen in eastern Indonesia at the end of last year have highlighted the persistent use of explosives for fishing, a destructive practice that’s illegal under the country’s laws.
  • Local officials say blast fishing tends to spike during public holidays, when the fishermen sense there’s less vigilance on the part of marine patrols and fellow fishermen who could report them to the authorities.
  • The government is working to end the practice through a combination of law enforcement and financial incentives to help fishermen switch to using less destructive equipment.
  • Authorities have called for expanded law enforcement efforts targeting not just the fishermen, but also the suppliers of the materials used to make the explosives, and others, including corrupt local officials, who continue to enable the practice.

KUTA, Indonesia — In the weeks before last Christmas, marine authorities in eastern Indonesia reported separate arrests of locals using explosives to catch fish. The arrests highlighted what observers say is a routine increase in blast fishing across the archipelago ahead of long public holidays.

Officers in East Nusa Tenggara province arrested eight fishermen in two separate cases on Nov. 30 and Dec. 6. They were caught using explosives to catch fish in what are some of Indonesia’s most biodiverse marine areas.

Blast fishing is illegal under Indonesian law, and violators face up to five years in prison and 2 billion rupiah ($147,000) in fines if convicted. While fishermen use the method to target commercially valuable fish, marine animals such as dolphins and turtles — both protected species in Indonesia — and the fishermen themselves have often fallen victim to the dangerous practice. It typically takes place so close to shore that it also damages coral reefs.

Indonesian authorities transport fishermen caught using explosives to catch fish in East Nusa Tenggara province. Image courtesy of the East Flores district administration.

Indonesian authorities have worked for years to end the activity through incentives and deterrents. The combination of financial support to buy more sustainable fishing gear and the threat of arrest has seen many fishing communities abandon the practice.

Local governments say they continue to urge fishermen to end blast fishing altogether, while supporting marine patrols by the coast guard, navy, and officials from the fisheries ministry and local authorities. They have also recruited fishermen to report on blast fishing in their areas.

“We group some fishermen for monitoring efforts. They’re like our spies,” Ganef Wurgiyanto, the head of provincial fisheries agency in East Nusa Tenggara, told Mongabay. He said each district in the province had at least two such groups of fishermen keeping an eye out for blast fishing.

But the prospect of an easy catch close to shore, without having to spend money on fuel to go farther out to sea, means blast fishing remains an attractive prospect for many fishermen. And authorities say their activities end to spike during public holidays, when they sense monitoring by the authorities and by fellow fishermen is more lax.

The recently arrested fishermen “must have thought that the patrolling teams had paused their monitoring activities because it was almost the Christmas and New Year holiday,” said Apolinardus Y.L. Demoor, head of the fisheries resources monitoring department in East Flores district, East Nusa Tenggara. “So they started blast fishing again.”

It’s a trend that shows up in other regions of Indonesia. Buyung Radjilun, head of the fisheries agency in North Maluku province, some 1,050 kilometers (650 miles) north of East Flores, said blast fishers in that region typically operate on Sundays and religious holidays, when much of the population goes to church.

“They’re sneaky, from their silent operations to where they store their catch,” he told Mongabay. “They’re extraordinary — just like terrorists.”

Buyung said blast fishing remained rampant because law enforcement had failed to create much of a deterrent effect, because it tended to be focused on just the fishermen and not the suppliers of the explosives and buyers of their catch. Buyung added that investigations into some reported cases of blast fishing indicated that corrupt local officials were involved. “They enable the blast fishers. It’s an open secret,” he said.

Indonesian authorities seize explosives from a Malaysian-flagged boat. The bombs were set to be used by Indonesian fishermen for blast fishing. Image courtesy of Indonesia’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Ganef, the East Nusa Tenggara fisheries head, said he would continue campaigning against blast fishing, including by discouraging consumers from buying fish caught this way and expanding programs to provide local fishermen with sustainable fishing gear.

But given that such community outreach only takes place once a year, campaigning by the authorities won’t be enough to end blast fishing, Buyung said. Instead, he called for an expanded law enforcement approach to apprehend all parties involved in supporting blast fishing. That includes choking off the supply of materials needed to make the explosive devices, which former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said in 2018 came mostly from Malaysia.

“If we’re truly committed to eradicating blast fishing and other forms of destructive fishing, we shouldn’t just stop at arresting the fishermen,” Buyung said. “Otherwise, we won’t be able to end this problem.”

Image banner of a bucket of fish at a market in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

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