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Indonesian fishers mount a community-led fight against destructive fishing

  • In coastal communities across Indonesia, local fishers are pushing back against destructive and illegal fishing methods by organizing into volunteer patrol groups known as Pokmaswas.
  • These groups have become crucial in protecting Indonesia’s vast marine resources amid limited government resources and infrastructure.
  • In recognition of their importance, the government has increased financial support for Pokmaswas and aims to strengthen these community-run surveillance networks further.
  • Mongabay Indonesia met with members of two groups, one on the island of Sulawesi and the other on Lombok, to find out the shared challenges they face, the role they play as educators, and their use of social media to promote their mission.

TAKALAR/EAST LOMBOK/JAKARTA, Indonesia — Mustam Daeng Beta exhaled slowly before he began describing his time as a young fisherman many years ago.

“Fish bombing was regular, also using poison,” Daeng Beta told Mongabay Indonesia in an interview on April 22 at his home in the village of Tompotana in Indonesia’s Takalar district, South Sulawesi province. “[We] never got caught, maybe because my boss had the backing from a certain side. But that was a very long time ago.”

On the island of Lombok, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) southwest of Takalar, across the Flores Sea, tour guide and certified scuba diver Herman also recalled dynamite fishing taking place with impunity. His home village of Padak Guar, in East Lombok district, features an expansive coral reef that Herman said was a key spawning and breeding site for fish.

Locals initially fished with lines and nets, he said, until increasing demand for seafood drove them to more effective but also more destructive gear: trawl nets, potassium cyanide, and explosives. “I used to hear the racket from fish bombing,” Herman told Mongabay Indonesia in an interview in January.

Daeng Beta, right, with a fellow member of the Pokmaswas group in Takalar district, South Sulawesi province. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.
Herman is a member of the Pokmaswas group in East Lombok district, West Nusa Tenggara province. Image by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay Indonesia.

Both Daeng Beta and Herman had witnessed the damage that these kinds of fishing techniques were wreaking on the marine ecosystems in their respective hometowns. They grew concerned about potentially losing a source of livelihood — one shared by millions of people across Indonesia who depend on fishing for sustenance and income. So they mobilized, island by island, to patrol their waters and monitor for illegal and destructive fishing. Thus was born the volunteer patrol network known today as Pokmaswas, a portmanteau of the Indonesian name for Community Monitoring Group.

“My motivation is to improve the sea around here,” Daeng Beta said. “There used to be a lot of fish here, but it was destroyed by bombs and tranquilizers, so the fishermen have to go far out to sea with little results.”

Community-run marine surveillance groups like those in Takalar and East Lombok were initiated by the government in 2001 and are now found throughout Indonesia to support the protection of the country’s expansive seas and coastline.

“The people’s role is needed to contribute and help with the monitoring of marine and fisheries resources,” Pung Nugroho Saksono, the director-general of marine and fisheries surveillance at Indonesia’s fisheries ministry, told Mongabay in an interview in Jakarta.

As the world’s largest archipelagic country, the Indonesian government needs to exercise high levels of monitoring, surveillance and enforcement to effectively combat and prevent destructive fishing and protect marine resources, experts say.

However, government patrols are costly to conduct and limited in scale due to lack of infrastructure and human resources to cover the thousands of islands dotted across a marine area of 5.8 million square kilometers (2.2 million square miles) — more than half the size of the United States. Ideally, the fisheries ministry said, it needs at least 78 patrol boats, which is double what it operates now, to monitor the country’s waters against illegal and destructive fishers, both foreign and domestic. Other government bodies that patrol Indonesia’s waters include the Navy, the Coast Guard and the National Police.

According to the latest ministry figures, there are 3,461 Pokmaswas groups nationwide, each with at least 10 members. Their main task, as the ministry puts it, is to be the eyes and ears of the authorities in places that are remote or inaccessible by the ministry’s own officials.

“Pokmaswas members are fishers, fish farmers, fish collectors, and so on, who are spread across Indonesia,” Pung said. “When they go about their activities and find a potential violation in marine and fisheries resources or illegal fishing activities, they will inform or report it to the officials.”

The Pokmaswas group in Takala’s Tanakeke Islands patrols the marine area to protect its rich resources. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.
The Pokmaswas group in East Lombok monitors the underwater ecosystem as part of its conservation effort. Image courtesy of Pokmaswas Petarando.

Herman’s Pokmaswas group in East Lombok was formed in 2014 and registered with the fisheries ministry in 2016. Most of the members are young people volunteering to take part. They patrol an area that includes a marine conservation park, a tourism zone, and shipping lanes. Within this range lie two coal-fired power plants, pearl farms and shrimp farms, adding to the human pressure that the marine ecosystem is already experiencing.

In South Sulawesi, Daeng Beta’s group patrols the Tanakeke Islands, a small archipelago that sits just off (and is part of the jurisdiction of) Takalar district. These islands are home to mangrove forests, coral reefs and seagrass meadows — three different types of ecosystems in a vibrant marine system. Daeng Beta said the driving motivation for his Pokmaswas group is to sustain these ecosystems as their key source of income, given that there are no other livelihood alternatives for the communities living on the islands.

“We must be the guardians of our resources,” Daeng Beta said.

The fisheries ministry said it’s benefited greatly from these volunteer community patrol groups. It cited a recent case of a Pokmaswas group in the Natuna Islands, off the northwestern tip of Borneo, whose information led to the arrest of a Vietnam-flagged illegal fishing boat by the authorities in May. The Pokmaswas volunteers have a direct line of communication to the authorities for regular monitoring updates and alerts of suspicious illegal fishing activities.

Deasy Ariani Amin, a surveillance analyst at the South Sulawesi provincial fisheries agency, said the Pokmaswas groups in the province have also helped with raising awareness about fisheries law enforcement and compliance among locals.

“Pokmaswas must also be strengthened to prevent illegal activities that damage the ecosystem, including educating the public about the importance of protecting mangroves and the sea, and the negative impacts of illegal activities such as destructive fishing or mangrove cutting,” Deasy said.

In East Lombok, the work done by Herman’s Pokmaswas has been acknowledged by experts and local authorities. They credit the group with contributing to the conservation of the local marine ecosystem, which in turn has encouraged more nature-based economic activities, especially within the ecotourism sector. Herman said his group regularly organizes mangrove planting and promotes findings from its patrols on social media — even doing live streams while on patrol. He added that most of the members are millennials and Gen-Zs, those born between 1997 and 2012.

“Whenever there are pro-environment and tourism activities, we always facilitate them,” he said. “We’re excited for educational activities because we [also] get to learn a lot.”

In 2023, Herman’s group was given an Exemplary Pokmaswas award from the fisheries ministry. Such recognition is seen as key to boosting the motivation of these volunteer groups, the ministry said. To that end, it’s also providing skills training and resources to Pokmaswas groups across the country. The ministry’s budget allocation for Pokmaswas this year is 15.58 billion rupiah ($987,000), up from 9.46 billion rupiah ($637,000) in 2022.

“The award became a driving force and reminder for us to keep putting out our best effort for the environment,” Herman said.

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This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here and here on our Indonesian site on February 10 and May 13, 2024.

Basten Gokkon, senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay, contributed to this reporting. Find him on 𝕏 @bgokkon.

See related:

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