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Coronavirus, trawls take a toll on shrimp fishery in Indonesia’s Jambi

  • The Indonesian government has temporarily restricted trade with China in the wake of the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease,
  • The move has hit the shrimp-fishing community in Sumatra’s Jambi province, which is highly reliant on the Chinese market.
  • The fishermen say they’ll need government assistance to switch to other fisheries, having already invested heavily in shrimping gear.
  • They’ve also called for a crackdown on trawl fishers operating in their waters.

JAMBI, Indonesia — Agus, a shrimp fisherman, sits pensively outside his home in Jambi, a province in Indonesia’s Sumatra Island. He’s among thousands of fishermen who, for several weeks now, have had to stop working as an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) grips China, the largest market for Indonesian shrimp exports.

“We’re struggling here because of corona,” Agus told Mongabay in an interview earlier this month. “We’re just sitting around waiting now. What can we do if we can’t sell mantis shrimp?”

The outbreak started in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, and as of Feb. 24 has resulted in more than 79,000 confirmed cases worldwide, with nearly 2,600 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly all of those are in China.

Agus says he depends on shrimp fishing to provide for his family in Jambi. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.

In the wake of the outbreak, governments around the world have restricted their trade with China, in an effort to contain the spread of the disease. The Indonesian government is among them, but its decision has been a blow for many businesses and individuals reliant on trade with China. Among these are the estimated 1,300 shrimp fishermen of Jambi, whose exports have plunged in value from 23 billion rupiah ($1.6 million) in December 2019, to just 1 billion rupiah ($72,000) so far in February 2020, according to provincial government data.

The fallout is also being felt by others employed in the shrimping industry. Indra Gunawan, a worker at one of the hundreds of small shrimp warehouses in Jambi, said the trader he worked hadn’t sent out any shipments since Jan. 25 and was running a hefty loss. “We don’t ship anymore — completely stopped,” he said.

He added that eight of his co-workers had been put on unpaid leave because of the lack of activity. “I’m lucky my boss still asked me to take care of his coffee shop and to check on the warehouse once in a while,” he added.

Domestic demand, primarily from Jakarta, hasn’t been enough to make up for the loss of business to China, according to Indra. He said that in the absence of government support, traders had joined forces to try to ship more of their shrimps to the Japanese market.

Mantis shrimps are popular in East Asian cuisines, and the fishery in Indonesia’s Jambi province is particularly reliant on the Chinese market. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.

Shrimp fishermen staged a demonstration in the provincial capital in mid-February to demand government assistance, but there was no immediate response. The fishermen say they’ve invested heavily in their shrimping businesses and don’t have recourse to fish other species because they lack the necessary equipment.

Kadri, a shrimp fisherman, said the nets to catch fish were significantly more expensive than those to catch shrimp. “Where will I get the money from? I’m already having to borrow just to buy food,” he said.

Those who can afford to make the switch to catching fish face competition from trawl fishermen who continue to operate in spite of a ban on that kind of net. “It’s not only one or two trawlers,” said Nasir, another shrimp fisherman. “It’s so crowded it’s like there’s a city out there in the fishing area. We wouldn’t be able to find any fish.”

The Jambi shrimp fishermen say they’re hoping the COVID-19 outbreak can be brought under control soon so that exports to China can resume. In the meantime, they say, the government must do more to provide them with financial support and combat the trawlers in their waters.

“Shrimp fishing is my source of livelihood,” Nasir said.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Feb. 23, 2020.

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