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Indonesia lifts export ban on baby lobsters aimed to protect wild population

  • Indonesia has lifted a ban on exporting baby lobsters, previously put in place to conserve the wild population of the animal.
  • The fisheries ministry has issued new requirements to regulate exports, including setting an annual quota and limiting the sites from where the lobsters can be harvested.
  • But the decision has been widely criticized by conservationists and the former fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, who warn the resumption of exports threatens to deplete the wild population.
  • Experts have called on the government to instead prioritize sustainable lobster aquaculture in the country, involving small-scale and traditional fishermen.

JAKARTA — Indonesia will start exporting baby lobsters after a previous ban aimed at conserving the wild population of the crustacean was lifted by the fisheries ministry.

Minister Edhy Prabowo on May 4 signed a decree allowing the resumption of exports of non-pigmented post-larval lobsters of the genus Puerulus (commonly known as whip lobsters) and of baby lobsters of the genus Panulirus. Edhy’s predecessor, Susi Pudjiastuti, had imposed the export ban in 2016 in an effort to replenish Indonesia’s lobster stocks.

Edhy, who has feuded publicly with Susi on several issues since taking office last year, first touted the plan to end the ban last December, saying he wanted to cater to small fishermen who depended on export markets. He also said Susi’s ban had failed to tackle the illegal lobster market.

Indonesia lacks the infrastructure for cultivating lobsters to boost the fisheries sector. Image by Melati Kaye/Mongabay Indonesia.

Between January and October 2016, authorities reported smuggling cases involving 800,000 lobster larvae valued at 124.8 billion rupiah ($8.3 million). The larvae are typically sold to buyers in Vietnam, Singapore and China, where they can be raised and sold at much higher prices.

Experts and observers, including Susi, have criticized Edhy’s decision, saying the lack of monitoring and law enforcement in the export chain, coupled with inadequate infrastructure to develop a viable lobster aquaculture in an aquaculture industry domestically, threatens to deplete the wild population.

A key topic of debate is the survival rate of these wild baby lobsters which, according to the fisheries ministry, is less than 1%. Proponents of resuming exports say harvesting these larvae may increase their odds of survival. But opponents say it’s important to keep the lobsters in the wild to prevent them from going extinct.

Some observers suggest the decision to resume exports was influenced by business interests affiliated with foreign enterprises looking for a massive supply of lobster larvae.

To address those concerns, the fisheries ministry says it has laid out requirements for exports, including setting an annual quota and limiting the sites from where the lobsters can be harvested by small-scale and traditional fishermen using “passive” gear. Juvenile lobsters that are either spawning or smaller than 8 centimeters (3 inches) or weigh less than 200 grams (7 ounces) may not be exported.

Exporting companies will have to develop the infrastructure to raise lobsters and release at least 2% of the captive-born population back into the wild, and will only be allowed to export them through selected airports.

Lobsters are a top commodity in the Indonesian fisheries sector. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

But despite these new requirements and the economic argument for resuming exports, experts say the new decision appears to abandon the conservation aspect of the issue. They also say that resuming exports will not contribute much to the economy as long as the illegal market for lobster exports persists.

“The new decree has shifted from what used to be aiming for the conservation of the commodity of lobsters and crabs, to something that’s emphasizing the business development of exporting and farming lobster larva,” Dani Setiawan, the managing director of the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Union (KNTI), told Mongabay in an interview.

Dani said the new decree failed to address the lack of domestic infrastructure for lobster aquaculture. If done properly, he said, such an industry would employ small-scale and traditional fishermen and have direct economic benefits for these communities.

The northern coasts of Indonesia’s Java and Lombok islands are the heart of the country’s lobster larvae production. In Lombok, sand lobsters make up 90% of the annual catch, according to a study. The lobsters are grown in floating cages and fed small fish until harvested after six months, as they near maturity. In 2012, the industry was valued at $2 million.

A major obstacle to economically viable lobster aquaculture is the high mortality rate during the nursery stage, more than 50%, which has been widely reported in Vietnam and Indonesia.

Dani said small fishermen had the potential and technical skills to build up the lobster aquaculture industry, but lacked the financial capital and access to both local and international markets.

“This should have been seen as an opportunity for the government to prioritize the use of lobster larvae for aquaculture in the country rather than for exports,” he said.

Conservationists say the government should prioritize environmentally sustainable economic activities.

“Otherwise, only the big businesses will get the benefits from this opportunity,” Dani said.

Indonesia has a thriving black market for lobster larvae. Image by Vinolia/Mongabay Indonesia.

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