- An island community in Indonesia’s Mentawai archipelago has responded to dwindling octopus stocks with a seasonal fishing closure to enable recovery.
- Global demand for octopus is expected to outpace supply over the medium term, implying higher dockside prices for many artisanal fishers, if stocks can be managed sustainably.
- Maintenance of local fishing grounds also offers crucial nutritional benefits for remote coastal communities in the Mentawais, where rates of child stunting exceed Indonesia’s national average.
SOUTH PAGAI, Indonesia — A white coastal beacon stood in place against the surf as gales hurtled across the Indian Ocean here off South Pagai, one of the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. When conditions subside, fishers like Sutrisno Madogaho will make their way to the beach, untie their boats and, armed with spears and hooks, begin searching for octopus — a traditional vocation that today faces a crisis.
“In the past, right here we could get 80 kilos [176 pounds] in one day,” Sutrisno told Mongabay Indonesia. But the days of record catches are gone.
In the years since Sutrisno began earning a living from catching octopus, the 32-year-old has seen the average dockside price he receives for the cephalopods increase by an order of magnitude, from around 4,000 rupiah (26 U.S. cents) per kilo (about 12 cents per pound) to more than 10 times that today, spurred in part by rising demand in countries like the U.S. and Europe.
“Octopus is becoming increasingly popular in several markets, but there are issues with supply,” according to the most recent update from Globefish, an information service published by the Food and Agriculture Organization, a U.N. agency.
“There has been a decline in catches in recent years, with limited availability pushing prices up.”
While the hot demand has boosted incomes in this corner of the Mentawai Islands for several years, the inflated prices have also sparked a rush that many here now say was unsustainable.
The Citra Mandiri Mentawai Foundation (YCMM), a local NGO supporting Mentawai fishers, estimates at least 8 metric tons of octopus are caught here every month during most of the year, declining to just 1-2 metric tons from June to September, when the Mentawais are hit by violent swells from the Indian Ocean.
Anecdotal testimony and data recorded by YCMM indicate daily yields are more volatile, and that the octopus has become increasingly hard to pin down in the waters here.
“Now it’s sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t,” Sutrisno said.
Researchers also expect fresh challenges to emerge over the horizon as climate change disrupts ocean ecosystems.
A paper published in November 2022 showed that the literature is mixed, with some studies concluding cephalopods may benefit from the weaker fitness of their competitors and predators. But other research paints a bleaker picture for the octopus as seas warm and become more acidic.
Like many of approximately 12 million Indonesians who rely on near-shore fisheries to provide for their families, Sutrisno has already found himself sailing farther from land to earn a living, circumstances that few here believe can continue for much longer.
Sutrisno’s home reflects the complexity involved in administering remote constituencies in the world’s largest archipelagic country.
There’s no phone signal or internet on some islands here, arresting development of a more diversified local economy.
South Pagai Island lies within the jurisdiction of Sinaka, one of nearly 84,000 administrative villages in Indonesia that receive dedicated funding from the central government to administer to local needs.
Sinaka has a population of just 2,411 people, yet this one village comprises some 32 islands and more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) of coastline — more than twice the length of seafront in Singapore, a city with a population of more than 5 million.
Village budgets are typically allocated to micro infrastructure projects, education, environmental, health and social welfare initiatives. In 2019, the village budget in Sinaka was 2.9 billion rupiah ($189,000), implying per capita spending by the village of less than $80 per year.
That means the elected village governments often have to rely on bootstrapping and creativity to resolve local challenges, like the sinking feeling among Sinaka’s artisanal octopus hunters.
Over deeper water beyond the reef fringing Beriulou, a small island close to the Sinaka mainland, a white flag fixed to a buoy announces that the sea is tutup: “closed.”
In response to the challenges facing their fisheries, the Sinaka village government drafted an innovative local regulation to shutter the waters off Beriulou from June 17 to Aug. 26 this year.
To monitor the closure, the village has established a sijago koat, a coast guard, staffed by 10 fishers chosen by Sinaka’s 14 hamlets. Like the masyarakat peduli api, volunteer firefighters established in Indonesia’s villages to prevent and fight wildfires on land, the sijago koat draws volunteers from the community to steward the local marine environment.
“For this moratorium, monitoring is crucial and there must be someone to supervise it,” said Tarsan Samaloisa, the elected head of Sinaka village.
Tarsan said the regulation was born out of widely held concerns around jeopardy to the community’s traditional livelihood. Lobster, for example, was abundant and a fundamental source of income here until recently, he said.
“Now, finding just 1 kilogram [2 lbs] is difficult, both around the settlements and the nearby islands,” Tarsan said. “That is the impact.”
The Sinaka village head said he hopes the new policy will offer a chance for the octopus to recover, while concentrating minds on the wider importance of managing a more sustainable fishery.
Healthy maintenance of Sinaka’s artisanal octopus fishery is likely vital in other fundamental ways.
Almost a third of children in the Mentawai Islands qualified as stunted in 2022, according to Indonesia’s annual nutrition report.
Research published in January this year in the journal Nature Food showed that sustainable artisanal octopus fisheries can provide crucial micronutrients for children, supporting wider government efforts to reduce child stunting.
“Just a small serving of something very, very micronutrient rich, like octopus, can fill critical nutritional gaps,” study lead author David Willer, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, said in a statement.
“And, of course, if you get better nutrition as a child you’re much more physically and mentally prepared for later life, which can lead to better jobs, better employment and better social development.”
Sutrisno has spent his adult life setting out to sea. He takes a break only during the galoro, the storm season.
“For my Christian friends, Sunday is a day off because they have to worship,” Sutrisno said. “Because I am Muslim, I go out to sea every day.”
Bayu Sisyara, an extension worker with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in South Pagai subdistrict, said he hopes giving octopus some room to breathe means Sutrisno can continue that way of life for years to come.
“It can give nature a chance to restore itself,” he said.
Banner image: Sinaka fishermen catch octopus on Beriulou Island. Image by Jaka Hendra Baittri/Mongabay Indonesia.
Borges, F. O., Guerreiro, M., Santos, C. P., Paula, J. R., & Rosa, R. (2022). Projecting future climate change impacts on the distribution of the ‘Octopus vulgaris species complex’. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.1018766
Willer, D. F., Aldridge, D. C., Gough, C., & Kincaid, K. (2023). Small-scale octopus fishery operations enable environmentally and socioeconomically sustainable sourcing of nutrients under climate change. Nature Food, 4(2), 179-189. doi:10.1038/s43016-022-00687-5