Moh. Tamimi, Sumenep, Indonesia – Small-scale fishers in Indonesia's Masalembu Islands have filed a petition to the government calling for the establishment of an exclusive fishing zone off-limits to larger trawlers that use a controversial type of net that scoops up everything in its path.
The Masalembu archipelago is dotted in the Java sea between the islands of Java and Borneo, an area that's one of the most heavily trafficked fishing zones in Indonesia. The petition, submitted with support from fisheries NGOs, are demanding the designation of a traditional fishing zone, an essential or protected ecosystem area, and the enforcement of a strict ban against cantrang, a ubiquitous form of seine net.
"Because the fish stocks have now been depleted, have been exploited way too much, many [large-scale] fishers now go to Masalembu and other small islands off the northern Java coast," Fikerman Saragih, from the Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), one of the NGOs advocating for the small fishers, told Mongabay Indonesia.
Under Indonesian fisheries law, the 12-nautical-mile (22-kilometer) zone off an island's coast is reserved for traditional and small-scale fishers, defined as those using boats smaller than 10 gross tonnage. These are exempted from boat and operation registration, while larger boats are required to apply for vessel and fishing licenses, especially if they plan to catch fish in waters outside of the region where they're registered.
The Java Sea has for generations played a key role in supporting the fisheries sector on Java's north coast (an area known as Pantura), the island of Madura off the northeastern tip of Java, and the southern coast of Borneo. However, much of the marine ecosystem has been overfished and damaged by destructive fishing practices, including the now-banned seine net locally known as cantrang.
Fikerman said the first recorded instance of conflict in Masalembu waters between local fishers and larger outsiders dated back to 1982. In recent years, however, there's been an increase in such incidents, with local fishers also reporting smaller catches over this period, he said.
"The traditional fishers in Masalembu can't find their fishing zone anymore," he said.
News of the seizure of a cantrang fishing boat in Masalembu waters was reported last December to the local authorities by a traditional fishing group from the main island of Masalembu. The boat allegedly was fishing 7 nautical miles (13 km) off the coast of Masalembu Island and didn't have the proper permits. However, police later determined there was no violation by the boat operator and released the vessel and its crew.
The cantrang ban was initially imposed in 2015 by Susi Pudjiastuti, the fisheries minister at the time, who blamed the widespread use of the net for depleting fish populations at unsustainable rates and destroying coral reefs when it snagged on them. But the ban faced a massive pushback from fishing communities across Pantura. These fishers have traditionally used cantrang in the Java Sea, and they historically represent a sizable voting bloc, making the cantrang ban a loaded political issue. In response, the fisheries ministry exempted the Pantura fishers from the ban, and in 2018 gave them a three-year grace period to give up their cantrang nets.
However, the ban was officially lifted in November 2020 by Susis successor, Edhy Prabowo, who cited efforts to boost catches and in turn attract greater investment in Indonesia's marine capture fishery. Edhy was arrested a week later on unrelated corruption charges and later sentenced to nine years in jail.
Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, who replaced Edhy as fisheries minister, in July 2021 reimposed the ban and also introduced the jaring tarik berkantong net, meant to be less destructive than cantrang. In the year since the change was imposed, reports have been published and submitted to the fisheries ministry about violations related to the use of both cantrang and its replacement. The reported violations also highlight poor monitoring by authorities as both types of nets are virtually identical, with fishers needing less than an hour to modify a jaring tarik berkantong into a cantrang.
Jailani, deputy chair of the Masalembu Fishers' Association, said local fishers have for a while now felt a growing threat from the activities of outside cantrang fishers, to the extent that they've had to take matters into their own hands to protect their fishing areas. He said his group of fishers once chased down a cantrang boat; in another incident, other local fishers set a cantrang boat on fire.
"Cantrang is prohibited based on the new regulation, but here, that prohibition is only on paper. We don't see any law enforcement to this day," Jailani said. "We've had to fight for ourselves to kick out the cantrang boats.
"But when we try to kick them out, conflict could break out," he added. "So it's a dilemma."
Jailani said he hoped fisheries authorities at both local and national levels would attend to the concerns of Masalembu fishers and establish a proper regulatory framework for traditional fishing zones and deploy monitoring resources to the islands.
"I feel sorry for the condition of local fishers here. Instead of getting better, it's getting worse, especially as fuel prices are rising while our catch remains small," he said.
– Translated by Basten Gokkon