Han Jei, Moluccan archipelago, Indonesia – "Blast" and poison fishing and the growing use of dragnets are threatening traditionally abundant fisheries in Indonesia's Moluccas islands.
The practices are not simply indiscriminately killing fish but are also depleting coral reefs and the rest of the underwater ecosystem.
In Mudwat village, on the western coast of Kei Kecil island, for example, blast fishing has been rampant since the 1960s. Sometimes dynamite is used or explosives from old military ordnance or crude home-made bombs.
Big fishing companies are involved, but they usually hire local people to do the work in order to avoid being directly linked to illegal activities. Members of the Indonesian military are also involved, often protecting the fishing companies.
"The problem of blast fishing in the Moluccas is very serious and very difficult," explains Ismail, a local fisherman and leader of Mudwat village fishermen's cooperative. "For example, if I have connections in the local military, I can freely bomb the fish."
Ismail admits: "Before, we were not really aware of the seriousness of this practice. We never imagined that the blast fishing carried out for the past 30 years would have such damaging effects for fishermen today."
Potassium cyanide fishing is a newer but growing problem. Companies use the poison to catch wrasse, grouper and rare aquarium fish in the Tanimbar Kei islands, at the southern tip of the south-eastern Moluccan archipelago.
The local Evav people are furious. They say the practice contravenes their traditional conservation laws, which have protected their environment and enabled them to live in harmony with land and sea for centuries.
Companies have been encroaching into the waters around the islands in the past two years, squirting potassium cyanide from plastic bottles into coral crevices to stun the fish. Once caught, the fish are revived with an antidote before being exported.
While doing this work, divers often snap off protruding coral branches which get in their way. Coral reefs grow only a few centimetres a year, so the divers' behaviour is highly damaging.
"Potassium cyanide fishing has destroyed our corals and source of food for the fish," says Mas-Il Eliar, a local community organiser.
"We are intimidated by the local authorities who try to find out who are the opponents of these practices and then take them to the military camp where they are punished."
But villagers' anger recently erupted and Mas-Il and other members of the community stormed the house of the village chief, who they accused of collaborating with a company practising cyanide fishing. They halted the firm's operations and chased away the military personnel providing it with security.
Dragnet fishing is a third deadly adversary for traditional fishermen.
Huge trawlers, many from Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, use vast nets stretching hundreds of metres. The nets cause extensive damage to the reefs and their haul is indiscriminate, including all species and all ages of fish.
One study by an independent research organisation in Indonesia estimated that every trawler operating in the Moluccan seas put 100 local fishermen out of work.
"I have witnessed the activities of these trawlers in the Aru islands since the early 1980s," says Martinus Lengam, a village headman from Wokam village in Aru. "Before the invasion of the trawlers, it was quite easy to find and catch fish, but now our source of livelihood has become increasingly scarce."
Domingus Herman, a community organiser from the Aru islands, says: "We have to revive our traditional customary laws to protect our sea resources from being taken by these big operators, otherwise there will be nothing left for our families and our future generations." - GEMINI NEWS
About the Author: HAN JEI is a Malaysian journalist who specialises in south-east Asia. Copyright: News-Scan International Ltd (1997) 24/1