Basten Gokkon, Jakarta – The Indonesian fisheries ministry is considering once again allowing exports of lobster larvae, a controversial policy that landed the former minister in jail for corruption.
The ministry says resuming exports will be important for boosting the livelihood of fishers across the country. Exports were halted in 2016 to prevent the overharvesting of wild lobster stocks from Indonesian waters. However, a decree currently being drafted by the ministry indicates they could soon resume, catering to demands for a resumption made by fishers at a parliamentary hearing in August.
The decree says exporters buying wild-caught larvae from local fishers would have to sign a partnership agreement with fish farmers and commit to release 2% of their harvest back into the wild. Those same requirements were notably included when then-minister Edhy Prabowo lifted the export ban in May 2020. That experiment lasted only briefly, however, after Edhy was arrested and jailed for taking bribes to award export licenses.
This time around, the ministry says it will be stricter about ensuring that exporters comply with the rules.
"In regulating the investment for the lobster larvae aquaculture, there's a strict procedure that's aimed to promote technological exchange so the domestic aquaculture sector will further advance," Effin Martiana, a spokesperson for the fisheries ministry, said in a statement published Oct. 13.
An investigation by Mongabay Indonesia in 2020 found that in the months following Edhy's lifting of the lobster larvae export ban, newly licensed exporters were abusing loopholes in the policy, particularly pertaining to the wild release requirement. For instance, one newly licensed exporter appeared to have met the requirement by releasing 200 farm-cultivated lobsters into the wild. The investigation found the lobsters didn't come from any of the company's farms and were instead supplied by local fishers.
The investigation also revealed connections between the exporters and senior politicians around Edhy.
Effin said the fisheries ministry would implement strict monitoring to ensure that both harvests and exports of lobster larvae would be sustainable and environmentally friendly, and would prioritize the interests of developing the country's fish-farming industry. Globally, fish farming, or aquaculture, saw a 527% increase in production from 1990-2018, with Indonesia among the top producers worldwide. At the start of his second term in office, in 2019, President Joko Widodo ordered the fisheries ministry to boost the country's aquaculture productivity.
Proponents of resuming lobster larvae exports argue that not harvesting them would be a waste, as the individual larvae have low survival rates in the wild. They also say the ban has been ineffective against larvae smuggling, despite several smuggling attempts being foiled by authorities. The larvae are typically sold to buyers in Vietnam, Singapore and China, where they can be raised and sold at much higher prices as fully grown lobsters.
But some fisheries experts remain highly concerned about the resumption of lobster larvae exports, saying it would most likely undermine rather than strengthen the domestic aquaculture industry, and would the sustainability of the species' wild population.
"Exports and aquaculture are different things," Yonvitner, head of the coastal and marine resources research center at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), told Mongabay. He said allowing exports to resume would strongly encourage fishers to catch and sell more due to the high prices driven by strong demand.
The northern coasts of Indonesia's Java and Lombok islands are the heart of the country's lobster larvae harvests. In Lombok, sand lobsters make up 90% of the annual catch, according to a study. The lobsters are grown in floating cages and fed small fish until harvested after six months, as they near maturity. In 2012, the industry was valued at $2 million.
A major obstacle to economically viable lobster aquaculture is the high mortality rate during the nursery stage, at more than 50%, which has been widely reported in Vietnam and Indonesia. Lobsters are among Indonesia's top fisheries commodities, but the illegal export of larvae and baby lobsters cost the country 900 billion rupiah ($62 million) in lost revenue in 2019 alone, according to the PPATK, the national anti-money-laundering watchdog.
The fisheries ministry puts the latest estimate of potential wild lobster stock in Indonesian waters at 27 billion. But the National Commission for Fisheries Resources Research (Komnas Kajiskan) reported in 2016 that lobsters in six out of 11 officially sanctioned fishing zones were overfished, while the rest were being harvested at maximum capacity.
"If you want to develop the aquaculture sector, then exports must be halted. By not exporting, the economic chain of and spirit for aquaculture will grow," Yonvitner said.