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Indonesia cancels fisheries infrastructure projects in Maluku region amid lack of funds

A group of traditional fishermen in small boats catching fish in the waters of Maluku.

A group of traditional fishermen in small boats catching fish in the waters of Maluku. Photo via Shutterstock.

  • Indonesia doesn’t have the money to build the National Fish Bank or a new Ambon port, two infrastructure projects the national government had promised in the province of Maluku, a minister announced last month.
  • The obstacle for the National Fish Bank project relates to its chosen location, near an underwater volcano and abandoned mines from World War Two.

In April, Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, announced there would be no funding from the 2022 national budget to develop the National Fish Bank in Maluku province, or a new port in Ambon, the provincial capital. The two national infrastructure projects had caused a buzz in the eastern Indonesian province when President Joko Widodo announced them during a visit there in March 2021.

The National Fish Bank would have been an integrated fisheries center or port with international and domestic container terminals, a liquefied natural gas terminal and a power plant with a dedicated kilometer-long pier, as well as fish auction and processing buildings.

This is the second time in 10 years ​​that the central government has promised and scuttled the National Fish Bank project. The first time the project was proposed was under the administration of Widodo’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This time, the outcry from the province two time zones away from the nation’s capital was shrill.

“It is unfair to say that there is no money,” Saadiah Uluputty, a member of parliament representing Maluku, said in a video she sent to Mongabay. “There cannot be an excuse. This [project] is related to the president’s promises during a trip to Maluku. To suddenly say that there is no money is a public lie.”

Another MP from Maluku, Abdullah Tuasikal, said he was upset at Jakarta saying the National Fish Bank would be replaced by a quota and size-based catch fishery policy in the waters around Maluku.

“How can small-scale fishermen, with zero capital, buy a quota?” said Ruslan Tawari, a fisheries professor at Pattimura University in Ambon.

Under the quota-based program initiated in February, Indonesia’s 11 fisheries management areas would be subdivided into four areas with set quotas or total tonnage of fish that could be caught by small-scale fishers, commercial fishers and hobby fishers. Quotas are determined by every two years by the fisheries ministry’s fish resources assessment commission, known as Komnas Kajiskan. As Pattimura University’s Ruslan sees it, unlike the National Fish Bank project, “the quota system will not develop Maluku as a fisheries hub.”

Ruslan also said the choice between the two programs was determined by politicians. “The National Fish Bank should not be a discussion limited to just politicians but a collaborative effort with civilians too. All humans can think but we are weak at collaborating,” he said.

A group of Moluccan fishermen clean their fishing nets after using them in the sea. Photo via Shutterstock.

Amrullah Usemahu, general secretary of the Society of Indonesian Fishers (MPN), an NGO, and regional head of the Indonesian Fisheries Students Association (HIMAPIKANI), also weighed in on the issue.

“The progress of the project has been up and down under the leadership of four fishery ministers,” Amrullah said, referring to the first time the National Fish Bank was suggested as a national strategic program in 2010. The project would have been a boon to eastern Indonesia, he added, by “reviving existing fishing ports around the Maluku region, [improving] logistics, routes and the development of fishery supply chains exported directly from Maluku.”

Ambon was originally targeted by the central government as a site for port and general fishing industry infrastructure development. In mid-March, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment announced that the projects would be cancelled because an initial site feasibility study revealed that the chosen site in Waai still had abandoned mines from World War Two in its waters. The feasibility study had also found an active underwater volcano.

There’s no reason the National Fish Bank and promised updated port can’t take the form of a port expansion, according to Amrullah. “Actually the central government could develop [the already existing] Ambon or Tual ports or upgrade Dobo port,” he said. He added that the eastern Indonesian regions of Maluku, Papua and East Nusa Tenggara didn’t have any type A ports — the largest kind of fishing port, home to fleets that fish right up to the edge of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Other news reports note that the already existing urban development around these older ports would limit the size of possible expansion.

Amrullah said the national infrastructure project lost steam when the port expansion was linked to the National Fish Bank fishery development area. “Fishery development should be the focus of the infrastructure initiative,” he said. “If there is no fish, we cannot talk about fishery exports [and therefore ports].”

A Maluku fisherman shows his catch of skipjack tuna. Photo by Shutterstock.

Banner image: A group of traditional fishermen in small boats catching fish in the waters of Maluku. Photo via Shutterstock.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on April 18, 2022.