Coastal communities hit hard by fishing industry

Down to Earth No 51 November 2001

Communities who depend upon coastal resources for their livelihoods are being pushed aside - sometimes by violent means - as entrepreneurs rush to maximise profits from the seas. Mangrove forests and coral reefs, natural havens for coastal biodiversity, continue to be destroyed, while pollution from agriculture, mining and other industries is damaging further coastal peoples' economic base.

In February this year two fishermen from East Lampung, southern Sumatra, were shot dead by men aboard a fishing vessel suspected of containing trawl nets. Three of their companions were wounded in the attack. The victims' own smaller fishing boat had been damaged when its anchor became caught in the larger vessel and it was dragged alongside. As their boat began to take in water, the men panicked but their shouts for help went unnoticed. They were shot when trying to board the larger vessel.

A month earlier, the mutilated bodies of three small-scale fishermen had been found in Deli Serdang district, North Sumatra. The three, aged 22, 34 and 51, were local activists opposing illegal trawling in their fishing grounds. They were labelled as thieves in the local media. Two more fishermen from a neighbouring area were reported to be missing. Local NGOs pressed for further investigation of the deaths and disappearances and called for support for the struggle against illegal trawling in Indonesia waters.

In Jambi province, Sumatra, trawler entrepreneurs pay criminal gangs or pirates to protect their interests around the Tanjung Jabung area. Traditional fisherfolk are forced to pay tribute or be robbed by the gangs. According to environmental NGO SKEPHI, both traditional farmers and the local government are powerless against these syndicates.

Such conflicts are not unusual along Indonesia's 81,000 km coastline, where communities' traditional fishing activities are regarded as an obstacle to the profitable and often illegal business of trawler-fishing. The conflicts tend to be between local, small scale fishing communities and the trawler fishermen, whose operations are usually run by outsiders or foreigners.

A 1980 presidential decree (No. 39) banned the use of trawls in western Indonesian waters and further restrictions were introduced for eastern areas in following years. But these contradicted earlier ministerial decrees which determined the permitted areas for trawling and so the issuing of trawl permits continued. When Sarwono Kusumaatmadja became minister for Marine Exploration in 1999, he unsuccessfully sought to have trawl permits cancelled. Today, both legal and illegal trawlers are rapidly depleting fish stocks and depriving coastal communities of their livelihoods.

Daylight robbery

Fishing ships from other countries - Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines - are dominating Indonesia's waters. Around 7,000 are operating in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to marine ministry data. As many as 4,900 foreign ships are reported to enter Indonesian waters each year. Estimated annual losses from illegal fishing by foreign poachers range from US $1.4 billion to $4 billion per year.

Around 70% of foreign fishing ships register for Indonesian flags to gain access to subsidised diesel fuel and to avoid crew fees. They also land their catch in ports in neighbouring countries.

Illegal exports of protected species or "exotic" fish are also common. For example, an estimated 17,000 tonnes of coral fish priced at $40 per kg are smuggled to Hong Kong each year for the restaurant trade. In Riau, an increase in the illegal export of dolphin meat - sold abroad as a cure for impotence - has been reported. There is also a thriving illegal trade in coral reef fish for aquariums in the USA and Europe.

The government response has been ineffective to date. Jakarta - preoccupied with the economy and multiple conflicts - is failing to pay adequate attention to the management of its marine resources. As in other resource sectors, the political will to clamp down on illegal activity has been eroded by corruption. Like their counterparts in the illegal logging industry, fishing entrepreneurs rely on collusion with local security forces and government officials to protect them from legal action. This lack of law enforcement on the seas makes the smuggling of other illegal goods, like fuel oil and logs, easier too.

Will the new government be able to tackle the problems more effectively? From public statements so far, it appears that Jakarta is focussing on recouping lost revenues rather than protecting the livelihoods of coastal communities. This is driven, in part, by the parlous state of the economy. The government is also intent upon intensifying exploitation of marine resources. Figures as high as US $31.9 billion per year to be earned from 7.8 million tonnes of fish are being quoted by the Marine and Fisheries Research Agency and a potential further US$40 billion per year from biotechnology in the sector, - all music to the ears of a government whose debts are spiralling out of control.

Indonesia currently catches around 3.7 million tonnes of fish annually and is ranked by the FAO as the sixth biggest fish producing nation. Exports of 800,000 tonnes currently fetch around US$1.76 billion per year. New measures and proposals on how to bring in more income from the seas include

  • a new marine ministry decree (No. 60/2001) aimed at liberalising the fishing sector which includes the introduction of annual fees of US$50,000 for foreign ships' permits to fish in Indonesian waters;
  • The decree also requires foreign joint venture fishing companies operating 20 or more boats to build fish-processing plants worth at least 30% of the value of the ships;
  • stepping up law enforcement and making it more difficult for ships to gain fishing licences. In August Rokhmin announced a new inter-agency team to tackle illegal fishing and blast-fishing ('dynamite' fishing) with representatives from the Navy, the Maritime Police, the Attorney General's office, the Supreme Court and others; 
  • a proposed regulation requiring all ships of more than 2,000 dead weight tonnes to use transponders - tracking devices - to allow the government to better monitor their activities; 
  • a review of existing fishing licences to check the status of fishing vessels. Those found to be violating regulations will have their licences withdrawn;
  • developing the capacity of Indonesian ports to accommodate large ships. An initial US$45 million is to be spent on ports in Sulawesi;
    policies to increase the skills of Indonesian fishermen.

(Lampung Post 15/Feb/01; MAP Late Friday News 78th edition, MAP 28/Jul/00; Jakarta Post 9/May/01, 21/Jun/01; Tempo 15/Jun/01; Indonesian Observer8/May/01; Antara 29/Aug/01 via INCL 4-36a; Antara Asia Pulse 26/Oct/01)


Coastal community demands

In the meantime, fishing communities are demanding justice. An August congress of fisherfolk in North Sulawesi issued a statement protesting against the robbery of natural resources. The statement demands respect for the rights of fisherfolk to manage and benefit from the sea and its resources, the sustainable management of coastal and marine natural resources; and the setting and protection of fishing zones for fishing villages through national and local policies.

In April, river and coastal fishing communities in Lampung marked Fisherfolk Day (Hari Nelayan) by issuing a set of demands to the provincial governor. These included: the banning of damaging equipment; bringing to justice people practising blast-fishing and those protecting them; arresting people using poison and causing other pollution; setting fishing zones; withdrawing laws which harm fisherfolk; cancelling plans to build a waterfront housing development; and drafting laws to protect fisherfolk.

The protesters, who presented these demands to provincial government officials, demanded concrete action within a month. The governor's assistant promised to take action including: organising meetings with local government and military personnel to discuss the problems; instructing district heads in conflict areas to deal with the problems and instructing industries to stop polluting.

(Pernyataan sikap: Hasil Kongres Nelayan Menggugat Perampasan Sumberdaya Alam Nelayan Tradisional, 28-30/Aug/01; Hari Nelayan Lampung,WALHI Lampung 8/Apr/01)


Fishing co-ops in Jambi

In Jambi province, a study by the NGO SKEPHI, revealed that the main problems faced by fishing communities were high levels of indebtedness (for buying fishing equipment), extremely low pay for workers on larger boats and illegal fishing in their waters by trawlers. SKEPHI has assisted in facilitating and establishing the Jambi Coastal Fisherman's Co-operation (SKNPJ). Discussions with local fishing communities have resulted in plans to set up small fishing co-operatives (minimum 20 members) to enable fisherfolk to gain greater control over their livelihoods.

(SKEPHI via MAP's Late Friday News, 78th edition 18/Feb/01)


New coastal law for regional autonomy

A new law is being drafted to mesh coastal spatial planning and management with the process of decentralisation in Indonesia (for more detail see Regional Autonomy article ). According to official statements, the law is being designed to provide a planning framework for regional governments to zone coastal areas for conservation, tourism, exploration, development and other uses. One of the aims is to establish clear rules for industries and encourage investment in the fisheries sector. The law will also cover resource management, waste management, engineering and construction, biodiversity and community-based development.

It may be some time before this new law is finalised. The drafting process has been criticised for not including key stakeholders - especially representatives of fishing communities themselves. The fisheries and marine affairs department is holding discussions with NGOs, academics and others to find ways of making the drafting process more participative. However, some of those involved in this process regard public consultations in the regions as too time-consuming and costly, while the need for the new law is pressing.

At the same time, the regional autonomy laws are being revised. Under the 1999 laws No. 22 and 25, control over decision-making on natural resources, including fisheries was supposed to be largely handed over to district - and to a lesser extent - provincial level governments. At the time, minister Sarwono, voiced concern over the fact that no marine expert had been involved in drafting the law (see DTE 45 ). According to these laws, district governments are responsible for the zone up to 4 miles from the coast, with provinces responsible for up to 12 miles. Eighty percent of fishing permits and catch fees is to be divided equally between all district/municipalities in Indonesia.

Since implementation began early this year, some districts have begun treating coastal waters as their own exclusive economic zones.

However, under the proposed revisions to regional autonomy, marine territory will return to the exclusive jurisdiction of the central government. Regional governments may be permitted to act as administrator and earn a share of marine resources. On the other hand, localised activities like aquaculture, are expected to remain under the control of local governments.

(Jakarta Post 4/Jan/01; Bisnis 31/Jan/01; Pusat Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup Bali; Buletin Infoprada 18/Aug/01)


Fishing community wins back rights

A fishing community in the newly-established province of Gorontalo, Sulawesi, has made use of new opportunities arising from regional autonomy to regain control over their traditional fishing grounds. In April and May this year Saronde, the United fisherfolk of Kwandang Bay, called in the grass-roots coastal management NGO, Kelola, to address the main problem faced by the bay: trawlers. A fleet of 17 small commercial trawlers were fishing the waters around Kwandang Bay as close as 1 km from the shore. Their crews were also involved in cyanide fishing in local reefs for the live fish trade. Several high-ranking police and navy officers were known to be colluding with the trawler operators. After a series of consultations, the community decided to collect signatures for a petition to be presented to government officials. The aim was to enlist support from the newly formed provincial and district governments for re-establishing the traditional fishing zone for the exclusive use of small scale fisherfolk.

Under regional autonomy law, districts have authority over 4 nautical miles from the shore and provinces up to 12 miles. It was determined that the Kwandang district government would declare its 4-mile zone (as set under regional autonomy laws) as traditional fishing grounds. A draft government regulation was prepared. The head of Kwandang district also intervened with local branches of the navy and police to enforce compliance and to identify non-corrupt officers to whom local people could report infractions.

Within 24 hours of this intervention the 17 trawlers had disappeared. Six months later, the trawlers had not returned, cyanide fishing had also ceased and the fishing community was holding regular meetings to exchange patrolling information.

(This report was summarised from an article, submitted to MAP's Late Friday News email newsletter, 87th edition, by Ben Brown of YARL


Kakorotan village maintains adat fishing system

The fishing community of Kakorotan in the Sangihe Talaud islands, North Sulawesi, has used the customary (adat) fishing system to protect their resources from outsiders. The adat system covering fishing - called Mane'e - is connected to the overall 'Eha' natural resource management system, whereby the community agrees not to harvest natural resources from certain areas for three months on land and six months from the sea. In 1999 the community successfully dealt with several outside fishermen - from the South Sulawesi, Maluku and the Philippines, who violated their adat and were using cyanide and diving equipment to collect reef fish. The outsiders were called in for discussions with local adat leaders and fined, then given one week to return home. Up to now, there have been no further incursions into Kakorotan waters. In December 1999, the Kakorotan community won the Kehati Award for their conservation and natural resources management. (Source: Kelola, Sangihe Talaud, October 2001)

Coral reefs disappearing

Destructive fishing practices and global warming are fast destroying what remains of Indonesia's coral reefs, according to a new report. More than 80% of Indonesia's 51,000 square km of coral reefs have been damaged according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report was compiled by scientists who carried out the most detailed assessment to date of coral reefs all over the world and is contained in UNEP's new World Atlas of Coral Reefs. According to the report, 82% of Indonesia's reefs are "at risk" from human activities, the most damaging of which is blast-fishing - the use of explosives to catch fish. Legal action against this destructive practice has been relatively rare although it has been going on for decades in some areas. Typically blast-fishers are backed by local entrepreneurs with strong connections to local military officers and/or politicians. The practice is also highly dangerous for the fishermen practising it. Some efforts at greater control - including more boats patrolling the waters of Komodo National park - are reported to be producing good results. (See also DTE 45 for more on blast-fishing)

Coral "bleaching" caused by global warming has been identified as another major cause of coral destruction worldwide. Scientists agree that the oceans are warming at a rate of between one and two degrees Celsius every 100 years. One scientist predicted recently that the world's reefs would be dead within 50 years, with only corals of non-tropical regions standing any chance of survival.

The COREMAP programme, funded by the World Bank and other bilateral donors, is the main donor initiative aimed at protecting coral reefs in Indonesia. COREMAP's Douglas Storey recently blamed reef destruction on the absence of a clear-cut policy on the management and conservation of corals, with responsibility for exploration, conservation and law enforcement all handled by different government departments.

(Jakarta Post 13/Sep/01, via INCL 4-37; Jakarta Post 4/Oct/01. 
For more information see 6/Sep/01; via INCL 4-36a; Environmental News Network7/Nov/00; Tempo Aug 21-27, 2001; New York Times 19/Sep/00; AP 24/Oct/00)


Jermal programme

A BBC radio programme about the harsh life of children working on Jermal - fishing platforms - can be accessed through the BBC website at


Information resources

PPLH Bali:

Yayasan Kelola:

Mangrove Action Project:

Worldwatch Institute:

Marine Conservation Society:

International Marine Alliance:


World Atlas of Coral Reefs: