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Can fishing in Indonesia be sustainable?

Julia Merk
January 10, 2022

Indonesia has set itself the goal of making its fishing industry sustainable by 2025. But subsidies and a lack of monitoring, coupled with the vital role of the sector, make this a challenging target.

Fishermen tend to their nets
Indonesia is aiming for a sustainable fishing industry by 2025Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Berry

When the Indonesian government announced plans to make the country's fishing industry sustainable in early 2019, Arifsyah Nasution welcomed the news. The ocean campaign leader for Greenpeace in Southeast Asia has long been sounding the alarm about endangered fish stocks in Indonesian waters. But he is skeptical that the situation will change much by 2025.

With over 7 million tons of catch annually, Indonesia is the second-largest fishing nation after China. Most is for domestic consumption, with the 270 million-strong population eating more than three times as much fish and seafood as the global average.

Data visualization: Amount of caught fish by country
Data visualization: Fish captured vs. exported

This has wide-ranging consequences: Most fish stocks in Indonesia are completely depleted or already overfished. According to the Marine Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, 90% of Indonesian boats draw their catch from areas that are already overfished and overcrowded with boats.

Indonesian waters are home to 37% of the world's marine species, many of which are endangered as a result of fishing. Shrimp, for example, are already overfished in more than two-thirds of Indonesian waters, and are therefore becoming increasingly rare. Quotas have already been exhausted in other parts of the country, too.

Data visualization: Species status in fishing areas

The decline in stocks is alarming. The problem is not easy to solve though, because often the economic aspect, the sales volume, is in the focus. Nasution told DW "it's not about the demand of the world market, but the survival of the Indonesian population."  

Subsidies as drivers of overfishing

Subsidies in Indonesia's fisheries sector — such as lower fuel prices and tax deductions — have also contributed to a steady increase in catches over the past decades.

Data visualization: Fish catch over time

Many scientists are therefore critical of them: harmful subsidies can lead to overfishing, loss of biodiversity and destruction of marine areas. This happens, for example, when fishing is undertaken beyond sustainable levels or when subsidies encourage harmful fishing practices. More than 60% of global subsidies in the fishing industry are potentially harmful to the oceans, according to a study by the University of British Columbia in Canada. 

The World Trade Organization has been advocating for the abolition of harmful subsidies in the fishing industry since 2001, but has so far not been successful. "Two decades is too long for ending subsidies that finance the relentless overexploitation of our ocean. [...] We need these rules for the sake of the environment, food security and livelihoods worldwide," WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in a speech marking World Ocean Day in June. 

Turning subsidies from harmful to beneficial

So far, Indonesia is subsidizing fisheries more than other developing countries, spending over $932 million (€825 million) in 2018. Peru, which catches almost as much, spends only a third as much as Indonesia on subsidies for the fishing industry.

Data visualization: Peru subsidies for fishing industry

Indonesia spends more on capacity-enhancing, harmful subsidies (60%) in total US dollar, but, as a percentage of the budget, Peru's spending is much higher. Such capacity-enhancing subsidies entail support for boat construction and renovation as well as bigger projects such as fishing port developments.

Although small-scale fishing operations account for almost 95% of the sector, experts say it is mainly the fishing fleets of large-scale industry that benefit from subsidies. 

Fish are laid out to dry in the sun
A fisherman dries his catch in a village near Jakarta, IndonesiaImage: Afriadi Hikmal/NurPhoto/imago images

On the other hand, targeted, beneficial subsidies can help maintain biodiversity and protect ecosystems. In Indonesia, about one-third of subsidies have so far been used for this purpose. Some of the funds have gone toward the promotion of marine protected areas, which are intended to protect threatened ecosystems from human exploitation.

One successful example is Raja Ampat, in eastern Indonesia, where several marine protected areas were designated in 2004. They now cover 4.6 million hectares (11.3 million acres) and are considered the most biodiverse protected region in the world, home to more than 1,600 species of fish and hundreds of corals. The abundance of fish attracts many tourists — but also some poachers, who have repeatedly caused damage by fishing with dynamite, for example.

Worldwide, however, Raja Ampat is considered a success story for the cooperation between NGOs, fishing communities and the Indonesian government. NGOs focused more on research and communication to increase public awareness and inform stakeholders. The government, for example, focused more on establishing structures such as a monitoring force to protect the area.

Colorful coral reef with fish
Raja Ampat, home to 75% of the world's known stone corals, is considered the richest coral reef on Earth Image: Jason Suwandy/IUCN Photo Library/picture-alliance/dpa

Protected areas can't be established everywhere, and it's not yet possible to completely phase out harmful subsidies. With entire industries depending on these funds, there is a risk of economic collapse without them, said Simon Funge-Smith, senior fishery officer at FAO's Asia-Pacific regional office in Bangkok, adding that the consequences would be far-reaching. "The loss of jobs, the loss of livelihoods is political dynamite."

Almost 7 million people are employed in Indonesia's fishing industry. If the government suddenly stopped all harmful subsidies, small-scale fishermen in particular would suffer, according to Indonesia for Global Justice, an NGO that advocates for a fair-trade system. 

The government must therefore plan carefully, gradually converting harmful subsidies into beneficial ones while continuing to ensure the industry's economic viability, Funge-Smith said. 

Politics hinder sustainable development

That is easier said than done. In recent years, there has been little continuity in Indonesia's Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries. Since 2019 alone, the minister in charge has changed several times. As a result, a ban on particularly harmful trawl nets was temporarily lifted in November 2020 before it was reintroduced in July 2021.

Susi Pudjiastuti sits on a sofa and gestures with her right hand
Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia's fisheries minister from 2014 to 2019, strongly advocated for sustainable fishing and marine conservation Image: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

Nevertheless, in order to encourage responsible fisheries management, "all stakeholders including the civil society need to continue and to focus on advocating the Indonesia fisheries issues at local, national and international levels," Greenpeace's Nasution said.

After all, he said, the ministry's knowledge when it comes to sustainable fishing has increased greatly in recent years. However, leadership problems in the ministry and the government's focus on attractive investments from abroad has hindered these efforts. Foreign investment is primarily focused on profit, which increases the pressure on marine resources. 

From 2014, the Indonesian government used radical methods against illegal boats, sinking more than 300 foreign and domestic vessels within four years. The number of foreign fishing boats dropped by a quarter, yet local fishermen were more active, according to a study by the ministry and American and Indonesian researchers from various universities. The authors observed an overall recovery of fish stocks in that time, but noted the risk that this would be wiped out by a strong increase in local fishing.

A boat on open water is exploding after being bombarded by a Indonesian navy boat (seen in the background)
Starting in 2014, the Indonesian Navy sunk hundreds of fishing boat for illegal fishingImage: Getty Images/LightRocket/I. A. Atifah

No data, no control

Another crucial problem in combating overfishing is the lack of reliable data to monitor compliance with regulations and to make the necessary decisions to protect the ocean. The mere size of the Indonesian archipelago, with its 17,500 islands and over half a million fishing boats, makes monitoring tricky. And most boats don't have onboard electronic devices to facilitate tracking.

Satellite view of the Indonesian archipelago
With Indonesia containing more than 17,500 islands and 60% of the territory covered by water, fishing boats are difficult to monitorImage: Google Earth/Image Landsat/SIO/NOAA/US Navy/NGA/GEBCO

Several pilot projects could provide a solution. One of these is FishFace, which automatically records catches and species using connected cameras on board. The technology enables remote monitoring in real time. 

Such developments give observers, including Funge-Smith, reasons to be optimistic, even if Indonesia ends up missing its stated goal of sustainable fishing by 2025. "Any progress towards that goal is great," he said. 


DW's Arti Ekawati contributed to this piece.

Edited by: Anke Rasper, Gianna Grün and Martin Kübler.