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Asia Dive News : Can Indonesia's devastated fishing grounds be saved?

With an estimated 94 percent its immense coral reef system in decline, Indonesia is beginning to grapple with what may be an impossible task: reversing what a government agency calls the “precipitous decline” of some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

The blue-ribbon National Committee on Marine Conservation sometime in September is expected to recommend scrapping the country's current failed marine management system outright and replacing it with a new one that establishes new networks of reserves and protected areas, or Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

These protected areas in theory would allow marine life to recover without the ruinous depredations of such practices as blast fishing, in which fishermen throw dynamite bombs into the water and scoop up the stunned fish, or cyanide fishing, in which divers swim down into the reefs and stun the fish with poison, delivering them live to markets as far away as Hong Kong. In a larger sense, however, the committee is concerned about the problems of fishery decline overall from the devastation wrought by commercial trawler and so-called long-liner fleets. These longliners, which trail out fishing nets up to 80 km long, tripled in some Indonesian waters, from 207 to 619 in the 30 years to 2001 and have continued to increase since.

Indonesia's fisheries are thus caught in the crunch of ever-increasing catches from a diminishing resource that will inevitably result in lost livelihoods for millions of Indonesians and severely impact nutrition and food security in this populous archipelagic country unless drastic changes are made.

No matter what happens, it appears there will be pain for the country's fishing industry. If the policy recommendations of the Technical Team of the National Committee on Marine Conservation of Indonesia are adopted in the September meeting, the industry faces drastic downsizing. The country's already impoverished fishing communities, many of them nearly wiped out by the tsunami that struck Aceh in late 2004, have no appetizing alternatives.

If the technical committee adopts the working group's recommendations, which is almost certain, and if the steering committee buys into this, which is likely but not guaranteed, the government still has to act, which isn't guaranteed either. However, getting this process that far will be a big step. Until recently, it appeared that Indonesia was likely to follow most of the rest of the world by allowing overexploitation to deplete or destroy its remaining active fisheries. 

It remains unclear whether the Indonesian government, never very effective in outlying areas, would be able to deliver meaningful enforcement even if the committee does through with its recommendations.  The 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, which wrought havoc on Indonesia's government, business community and society overall, intensified pressure on the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Affairs to increase investment in the sector, including new government incentives to attract foreign investment. Now it is going to have to back away from its earlier thrust.

There is a continuing misperception that, because of the region's biodiversity, fishery resources here are largely untapped.  But in fact Indonesia's reefs are already damaged or deteriorating, according to the ministry, and most of Indonesia's capture fisheries are known to be fully or overexploited. According to a study by the Coral Reef Alliance, an international environmental organization, the pervasiveness of overfishing in Indonesia has resulted in massive societal loss estimated at US$1.9 billion over the last 20 years.

Until now, the marine ministry has based its estimates of fish stocks on the number of fishing vessels and their total annual catch, generating estimates of maximum sustainable yield under equilibrium conditions (i.e., if the annual catch exactly equals the amount of fish added to the population through growth and reproduction).  Recent estimates of Indonesia's maximum yield have varied widely, from 3.7 million tonnes to 7.7 million, with the ministry compromising on about 5 million.

Unfortunately, estimates are never better than the count from the fishermen themselves, and gathering accurate statistics about Indonesia's highly variegated, multi-gear and multi-species fisheries, including large numbers of village-based artisanal fishers along the country's 80,000 km of coastline has proved immensely difficult and expensive.  Calculating accurate sustainable yield estimates also requires that fisheries already be in a state of equilibrium, a condition rarely if ever actually met, particularly in developing fisheries. 

The reality for the entire Southeast Asian region (as well as other fisheries throughout the world) has been rapid depletion that too often leads to fishery collapse as governments and industry adhere to (or ignore) MSR estimates which never accurately reflected actual stocks. 

An assessment of five major Indonesian fisheries in 2003 by the ministry concluded that four were either fully exploited or over-exploited.  These fisheries were:

• Pelagic (fish that live in the open sea, away from the sea bottom) stocks of the Java Sea (total remaining stocks now well below the annual fleet capture capacity);

• Demersal (bottom-foraging fish that normally live near or on the seabed) stocks  of the Java Sea (average catch per hour of trawling dropped from 171 kg/hour in 1976 to 43 kg per hour in 2001, with significant changes in the composition of species as trawlers “fish down the food chain” toward trash species as the most desirable species of the past become scare or locally extinct);

• Demersal fish stocks off Kalimantan and South China Sea (already fully or over-exploited);

• Red snapper in the Arafura and Timor Seas (experts say this fishery must be immediately closed for at least 10 years to avert an immediate total collapse).

Even the Indian Ocean tuna – the only Indonesian fishery not obviously fully exploited or over-exploited –already shows clear warning signs that maximum sustainable limits may soon be reached.   The size and weight of individual fish caught has declined dramatically, from 37 kg in 1972 to only 27 kg in 2002.

In the past, marine protected areas have been primarily viewed as a means of conserving biodiversity and natural habitats, but governments, multilateral agencies and resource managers are increasingly finding that the protected areas better protect marine populations than the discredited maximum sustainable yield models. 

Numerous studies have already shown that the protected areas incorporating substantial no-take zones result in higher fish biomass, larger-bodied fish and more natural species composition.  Recent studies are providing evidence the protected areas can have measurable economic benefits to adjacent traditional and commercial fisheries. 

They also benefit nearby fishing grounds through spill-over of adults and juveniles from the no-take zone into surrounding fishing grounds, export of planktonic eggs and larvae to fishing grounds from breeding populations of fish in the protected area, and by providing genetic pools and breeding stock basis for future recovery of depleted or collapsed fish populations in over-exploited fishing grounds after effective fishery management mechanisms are put in place.

Enforcing no-take zones, by no means a trivial task in developing countries with limited resources, can be simpler and more cost effective compared to managing complex quota and gear restriction systems.

Shifting fisheries management in Indonesia from maximum sustainable yield-based take quotas and gear limits to an ecosystem-based approach centered on protected areas poses huge challenges, but the benefits of ensuring that Indonesia's seas remain a productive source of food and employment over the coming decades and for future generations are no less immense.   The national marine committee's actions over the coming months to support development of a national protected-area strategy for fisheries management in Indonesia are thus critically important to the interests of Indonesian fishers and consumers as well as for biodiversity conservation.

Source: Asia Sentinel

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