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In Java Sea, vigilantism and poverty rise as purse seine fishing continues

Mongabay - April 11, 2024

Riyad Dafhi Rizki, Sembilan Island, Indonesia – Until recently, skippers on this island relied on their day's catch of grouper, mackerel and snapper tipping the scales at around 50 kilograms (110 pounds). Today, Mukhlis provides for his family with just a fraction of that daily haul.

"They're using cantrang fishing gear," Mukhlis told Mongabay Indonesia, referring to the common name for a purse seine net used by some large fishing boats locals say are intruding here.

Seine fishing is an ancient method in which fishers use expansive nets weighted down to the reach the bottom of the sea to capture large quantities of fish. However, research has proved the fishing practice in its supersized modern form has become increasingly unsustainable owing to its indiscriminate nature.

Today, cantrang nets often measure in the kilometers. When towed behind motorized fishing boats, they envelop not just the target species but a retinue of other marine life.

Approximately 90% of fish species worldwide are today considered either fully exploited or overfished.

Sembilan is an island of around 8,000 people off the southern coast of Borneo, almost 450 kilometers (280 miles) from the port of Surabaya, Indonesia's second city and the capital of East Java province.

Mukhlis said large fishing vessels flagged out of Central and East Java provinces are encroaching on the community's fishing grounds here. Local fishers have seen these cantrang boats prowling waters just 8 km (5 mi) off the island's coast, he said.

"That violates the rules," Mukhlis said.

Regulations enacted by Indonesia's Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries divide the waters of the world's largest archipelagic country into blocs.

According to these rules, large ships should be confined to WPP 712, a zone located in the Java Sea and the waters around the Natuna Islands off eastern Sumatra.

Mukhlis said he suspects that fishing boats from Java are encroaching into WPP 713, which includes the waters off Sembilan, because conditions in WPP 712 have reached an inflection point.

Clearance sail

Compounding the anxiety felt by fishers here is the rise of confrontation with large vessels from Java, Indonesia's most populous island.

For generations here, fishers like Mukhlis have used wood to build fish-aggregating devices, known locally as rumpon, which are moored offshore to attract schools of fish. The fishers will then use small nets and short lines to snare the unwitting groupers and snappers congregating around the rumpon.

It costs around 1.5 million rupiah ($100) to build a single rumpon. However, every month the Sembilan fishers say between five and 10 of these devices are ensnared by a cantrang net.

"Apart from the missing rumpon, we also don't get any fish," Mukhlis said.

This has slowly kindled hostility between the local fishers and the larger boats that travel more than 370 km (230 mi) to fish in these waters and bring with them advantages that easily outcompete the artisanal fishers.

"Because the ships are big, they still go to sea when the swell is high," said Amiruddin, the head of a fishing cooperative on nearby Marabatuan Island. "Really, this is an opportunity for them because local fishermen don't work during that time."

Several fishers here told Mongabay Indonesia their small boats had been damaged or destroyed by a cantrang vessel.

Perhaps predictably, these tensions have sparked instances of vigilantism. Amiruddin once forcibly detained a cantrang crew and brought the men to the local police station. After that, he said, the ships disappeared.

"A few days later, there were more operating in our area," Amiruddin said. "It's like there has never been any decisive action."

Sembilan fishers have sought assistance from the local police, the coast guard and the PSDKP, the regional office of the fisheries ministry's resource monitoring agency.

"Patrols do exist," Amiruddin said. "But it's confusing to us because every time they go on patrol they say they have never seen any cantrang activity. Yet whenever we go to sea, we almost always come across them."

Amiruddin and Mukhlis said the local fishing grounds have deteriorated in recent years. These anecdotal impressions are supported by scientific research. For example, much of the nearshore fishing grounds off Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city, amounts to an empty body of water.

"There are some serious concerns related to the fish resources and habitat degradations in the [Greater Jakarta Bay ecosystem]," according to a 2018 study published by Hari Eko Irianto and colleagues in the Indonesian Fisheries Research Journal.

Net loss

Mongabay Indonesia has previously reported from the north coast of Java, where cantrang fishers say they face acute economic pressures and must sail farther from Java to find viable fishing grounds. They also say they can't afford to phase out their use of the seine nets.

In response to declining fish populations, many coastal nations like India and the Philippines have implemented measures to regulate seine fishing, ranging from restricted access in nearshore areas to outright prohibition.

However, chaotic policymaking governing cantrang use during President Joko Widodo's 10-year administration has seen the legal status of the purse seine chop and change since 2015.

In 2015, then-fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti banned the purse seine. However, a year later, her successor, Edhy Prabowo, a protege of current president-elect Prabowo Subianto (no familial relation), rowed back on the measure before he was charged with corruption in 2020 in an unrelated case. The current minister, Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, reinstated the ban in 2021.

Rusdi Hartono, head of the fisheries department for South Kalimantan province, where Sembilan Island is located, said the cantrang boats have caused problems in several fishing areas off the southern coast of Borneo.

"I am very concerned about the plight of our fishermen," Rusdi told Mongabay Indonesia.

Between 2021 and 2023, cases involving 26 large vessels have been taken to court for either their use of a cantrang net or violation of zoning restrictions, he added.

"However, at sea, cantrang ships are very good at playing cat and mouse," Rusdi said. "When we patrol, they are not there. However, after the patrol they return again."

Rusdi cited three cases in which cantrang boats were set on fire by local fishers, and emphasized that the provincial government was focused on resolving the acrimony.

"Fishers, don't worry," Rusdi said. "We, the provincial government, are serious about solving this problem."

For fishers in Sembilan, the loss of income and the stress of incursions by better-resourced, larger fishing operations continue to bubble under the surface of the waters here.

Erwin Rosadi, an academic in the maritime faculty at Lambung Mangkurat University in Banjarmasin, the largest city in South Kalimantan, said the majority of the province's fishers were subsistence operators, adding that risks of the purse seine unrest being allowed to drag on were clear.

"Policymakers cannot be slow," Erwin told Mongabay Indonesia. "Because if it continues, it could trigger major social conflict."

Mukhlis's younger brother, Said, recalled a fraught standoff with a cantrang ship's crew off Sembilan Island some time ago.

"They pointed a gun at me, although I couldn't tell if it was a real gun or not," Said told Mongabay Indonesia. "I wasn't afraid. Actually, I told him to shoot, but he didn't have the nerve."

Banner image: For generations here, fishers like Mukhlis have used wood to build fish-aggregating devices, known locally as rumpon, which are moored offshore to attract schools of fish. Image by Riyad Dafhi Rizki/Mongabay Indonesia.


Irianto, H. E., Hartati, S. T., & Sadiyah, L. (2018). Fisheries and environmental impacts in the Great Jakarta Bay Ecosystem. Indonesian Fisheries Research Journal, 23(2), 69-78. doi:10.15578/ifrj.23.2.2017.69-78

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/04/in-java-sea-vigilantism-and-poverty-rise-as-purse-seine-fishing-continues