Illegal Fishing Threatens Marine Ecosystem

For centuries, the people of Western Sulawesi coastal areas have depended on marine ecosystems for their food and livelihood. There is a huge ecosystem region called Spermonde Islands located between the main islands of Kalimantan and Sulawesi. There are 126 small islands spread across this region with a population of more than 50,000. Today, however, coastal communities in Spermonde are worried, as their marine resources have decreased rapidly due to destructive fishing and natural sedimentation from urban disposal and rivers. Some people want to control illegal fishing and at the same time to find alternative sources for their income.

Of the 350 coral species living in Indonesia, 250 were found across Spermonde. This area covers 150 square kilometers of coral reefs. The population has shown a high dependency on coastal resources. Unfortunately, coral fishes have been intensively exploited by destructive fishing practices such as using explosives and poisons.

The use of explosives and poisons has been a tradition for years. Fishermen use bottled-bombs to increase their catch. Based on research, one bottled-bomb will destroy 5 square meters of reef. More-powerful bombs are even more dangerous. The bombs also destroy young benthic species.

The bottle-bomb or dynamite fishing practice started after World War II and has been a big destroyer of coral reefs. For fishermen, increasing their incomes is the main reason to resort to such practices. They do not realize that by destroying the coral reefs they are destroying the next generation’s assets, worth up to US$306,800 per kilometer, for 20 years, according to the latest estimation.

Based on my fieldwork since 1996 in eastern Indonesia, the role of a local economic institution called “Punggawa Sawi” (patron-client) is important in sustaining such practices. The crews in the fishing boats (generally poor fishermen) rely on the instructions given by their supervisors or the boat owners. The “big boss” tends to instruct the crew to increase the catch by any means. For example, in Kapoposang Island, Barrang Caddi Island and the Galesong coastal region near Makassar, about 50 percent of the fishermen’s incomes come from destructive fishing practices. They mainly catch the fish using dynamite or poisons.

Research indicates the damage to coral reefs is also caused by illegal fishing, anchoring, coral bleaching and siltation. It is an irony that the dynamite fishing has intensively continued. Most big fishermen use bombs, dynamite or poisons to catch high-value fishes, such as snappers and lobsters. According to research, 2.83 percent of the 7,569 boats operating in Spermonde have used illegal fishing techniques; of these, 86.5 percent used dynamite and 10.8 percent poison (sources: YKL Indonesia and DFW Indoesia). Despite the restrictions last issued by the local authorities, there are many indications of the expansive use of dynamite by fishermen in the outer islands. Although in some cases the fishermen risk their own lives, such methods have remained popular.

“To date, there is no significant effort from government, especially from prosecutors or police to ban this practice,” said Irman Idrus, chairman of Destructive Fishing Watch in Jakarta. “The stories of destructive fishing are continuing due to potential corruption, collusion and nepotism (called KKN). Indonesian authorities consider the fishermen who conduct dynamite fishing or fish bombings as someone who is keeping or hiding the bombs, referring to a conventional law. They never want to seek an explanation about impacts on coral reef destruction and/or to disclose the whole network.”

Spermonde is also acknowledged as the domain of potential fishery activities across Sulawesi-Nusa Tenggara-Bali (called the triangle of dynamic waters) and has been colored by conflicts and complex management issues. Social and environmental conditions in this area have been worsening. The complexity can be seen from the fierce competition between traditional fishermen against modern fishermen supported by big and rich fish traders, and sometimes by local authorities or prosecutors.

If there is no significant action to ban destructive fishing practice across Spermonde, the continuation of the coral reef destruction could be as serious as deforestation, which had been discussed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali. The level of coral reef degradation from 10 percent to 50 percent is an indication of the severity of the crisis. If there is no significant effort from government and nongovernmental organizations to deal with the problem, we will lose our priceless marine resources and ecosystem forever. There is a lack of pressure on or criticism of the existing law enforcement systems in South Sulawesi and Sulawesi Barat waters.

Many of those who use destructive fishing practices could not put on trial due to a lack of evidence. This is a big challenge to the Indonesian court as reported by a local NGO in Makassar. There are many records of fatalities caused by bombs. For instance, in 2001, 3 fishermen were killed in Papandangan Island. In 2002, a fisherman was also killed while dynamite fishing. Intercommunity conflicts arise day by day. Horizontal conflicts between Papandangan Island fishermen and other illegal fishermen accompanied by police officers occur due to conflict of interest for fishing ground occupation.

A lack of commitment from the legal authorities is the major reason why destructive fishing practices continue across Spermonde.

Amid the grieve situation, however, there are self-help groups seeking to improve the situation in Spermonde. These groups actively seek information about the impacts of destructive fishing methods on coastal reefs. They also learn alternative methods, such as environmental-friendly seaweed culture and sea-ranch culture practices. The self-help groups face great challenges because they are pressured by local fishermen, who use bombs and are mostly supported by local law enforcement officers. At least, a small initiative has begun.

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