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Managing Fisheries in a Harsh New Environment

On data gathering in the Timor Sea.

By Philip Jacobson


A worker sorts fish from the Timor Sea by size and type at a processing plant in Benoa Harbor, Bali. (Photo: Risal Pramana/The Nature Conservancy Indonesia Fisheries Conservation Program)

When researchers from The Nature Conservancy chose an Indonesian fishing grounds as the focus for a project in 2014, they thought it would be a relatively simple fishery. Word was, only five or 10 species were being pulled out of these waters in the Timor Sea, near Indonesia’s maritime border with Australia. It seemed similar to a deep-slope fishery they had studied in Hawaii, and TNC thought it would be the perfect candidate to turn into a showcase of sustainable management.

The reality was far more complicated.

“Everyone is confused about fish identification,” Elle Wibisono, a consultant on the project, wrote on her blog after the project was underway. “Government agencies have no idea, the fishermen themselves don’t know, NGOs don’t know. No one has a fucking clue.”

Authorities need to know what species a fishery contains in order to design policies that prevent overfishing so the resource doesn’t collapse. But, in the Timor Sea, fishers were catching any number of species, yet processing plants were labeling them as either snapper or tuna and shipping them to markets like Taiwan and the United States.

“Snapper just means, Not Tuna,” Wibisono went on. “Tuna means tuna. Mackerel means tuna. Albacore means tuna. Anything vaguely snapper looking and reddish in colour is a fucking red snapper. Ruby snapper is a red snapper. Random snappers are red fucking snappers. Basically fish industries reduce 110+ species of fishes commonly caught into like … 6 fish categories. So if you look at the current data everything is probably tuna or red fucking snapper. And that, as you can imagine is not going to give [us] remotely accurate data about the fisheries condition in Indonesia.”

Welcome to Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of 17,000 islands that spans one-eighth of the world’s circumference and constitutes one of the world’s most complicated fisheries. The Southeast Asian country sports unparalleled marine biodiversity, with world-beating coral spreads, mangrove stands, and seagrass ecosystems. The creatures therein are similarly multifarious.

Yet the marine resources of Indonesia and other major fish producers are being exploited at a dangerous rate. From 1970 to 2010, the populations of fish used by humans fell by half. “The picture is now clearer than ever: humanity is collectively mismanaging the ocean to the brink of collapse,” Marco Lambertini, director general of World Wildlife Fund International, wrote in 2015.

Climate change exacerbates the problem. Around the equator, where Indonesia lies, climate change is reducing fish productivity, making stocks more vulnerable to overfishing. More generally, warming oceans and rising acidity degrade the reefs that one-quarter of all sea dwellers call home. The World Wildlife Fund warns that, if present trends continue, all coral reefs could be gone by 2050.

“If you see many small fish in the catch — so many juveniles — you can be relatively sure that the fishery is not in good shape.”

In Indonesia—unfortunately for the archipelago’s vast natural wealth—governance is weak, corruption prevalent, and official data poor. For decades, the nation’s fisheries were managed out of Jakarta, the capital, with a mind toward ramping up production to increase export revenue — how to get more boats with more nets and more fishermen catching more fish to send abroad. Sustaining fish stocks for the long term has traditionally been an afterthought.

That is starting to change. Last year, reformist Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected president. As one of his first orders of business, and in line with his promise to turn Indonesia into a “global maritime axis,” Jokowi declared war on illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and appointed maverick seafood and airline entrepreneur Susi Pudjiastuti as fisheries minister to carry it out. The popular Pudjiastuti is known for dropping out of high school and smoking a lot of cigarettes. She started out as a seafood distributor on Java’s southern coast; later, the turboprop planes she had acquired to transport fresh fish to Jakarta became the foundation for Susi Air, now a successful airline.

After becoming minister, she became famous for rounding up illegal foreign fishing boats and literally blowing them out of the water (after evacuating their crews, of course). In her office, Pudjiastuti is said to keep three giant screens, one that serves as a cat-and-mouse board with the locations of naval vessels and suspicious ships she’s tracking, one that functions as a dashboard for how she evaluates her efforts to resolve fisheries in the country — and one that displays her social media stats. The minister has 170,000 followers on Twitter.

In the face of vested interests, Pudjiastuti has moved boldly to reduce overfishing. She has imposed size-catch limits for certain species, cut fuel subsidies for fishing boats, and banned trawling, an all-too-effective fishing method in which a massive net is dragged through the sea, ensnaring everything in its path. Yet the task before Pudjiastuti is so Herculean, the problems on her plate so entrenched, that, even with the recent reforms, Indonesia’s fisheries still hang on the precipice between sustainability and collapse.

The single greatest limitation might be a dearth of reliable data. To properly manage a fishery, authorities need to know both the state of the stock and how many fishers are hitting it. Then they can put two and two together and design policies to prevent there from being too many fishers for too few fish. “That’s one of the main reasons we’re interested in species composition,” says Peter Mous, a researcher at TNC, the non-governmental organization working on the Timor Sea project. “For us, it’s not really about discovery and finding new species; it’s to draw conclusions about the exploitation status in this fishery and later on to help fishery managers make decisions on how to manage it.”


An image from The Nature Conservancy’s species identification guide shows how similar different species of fish can look. (Photo: The Nature Conservancy)

That’s why TNC’s discovery of widespread misidentification sounded alarm bells. Different fish have different biological profiles: They grow differently, they die differently, and how they grow and die basically determines how much you can take from a certain population in a given year. “That’s called stock assessment, and you need to assess stock before you develop a fishery—and as it develops—so you can say how the fishery should grow,” says Daniel Pauly, a French marine biologist who to his present regret helped introduce trawling to Indonesia in the 1970s.

In the Timor Sea, Mous’ team quickly realized they would have to start from square one. Among the head-scratchers they encountered were two snappers that look almost identical, except one grows to be twice as large as the other. Between them, though, no distinction was being made, putting the bigger one in danger of being harvested at only half its full size.

“If you see many small fish in the catch — so many juveniles — you can be relatively sure that the fishery is not in good shape,” Mous says. “People are fishing them so hard that very few of them make it to large size. You simply will not have enough parent stock anymore. And it is also inefficient — you are taking these fish before they have reached growth potential. Of course, you can only draw these conclusions if you know for sure that you’ve got the species right.”

That’s not as easy as it sounds. In line with the project, TNC produced an identification guide that includes a section on telling similar species apart. Often the difference is minute — a yellow stripe here, an eye shape there. Further muddying things is the lack of an accepted Indonesian nomenclature for fish names outside the most common species, or any standards on labeling of seafood in the country. But straightening out the nomenclature is becoming more crucial, especially as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration becomes stricter in its naming conventions to prevent misbranding. Previously, a trader could export fish to the U.S. under whatever name they desired — cherry snapper, salmon trout. Now, if an Indonesian company wants to send, say, a box of snapper into the country, they must either call it just that or label it with the precise scientific and English names.

In 1988, Pauly and a colleague began to encode the software that would become FishBase, now the largest and most-accessed online database for fish. Previously, information about different species lay uncollated in the world, scattered across multitudes of journal articles, academic papers, newsletters, and more. FishBase aspired to put it all in one place: a comprehensive record of every fish known to science. In the pre-Internet days, that meant on CD-ROM; in 1996, Pauly launched the Web version. Today, the independent platform has tens of thousands of entries, with data on taxonomy, morphology, geographical distribution, behavior, and more.

Despite its ambitions, however, FishBase isn’t perfect — a fact TNC researchers were forced to confront. FishBase draws from scientific papers, but those aren’t always accurate. Neither is it always updated with the latest taxonomic revisions, Mous says, so, for lesser-known species like many of those in the Timor Sea, it often falls short.

“If you’re a fish company and you’re not thinking about sustainability, you’re not thinking about the sustainability of your company.”

Pauly knows it isn’t foolproof. “FishBase was conceived as a database that would enable stock assessment exactly in regions like eastern Indonesia where they don’t have local data, to enable people to have at least some similar fish that they can build models to resemble the situation and run different scenarios,” he says. If a fishery has 10 more species than previously believed, Pauly says, best practice would require that it be developed slowly, with managers assessing how much can be caught based on feedback from the resource itself.

Usually, though, “fisheries in the entire world become managed only after they have become developed,” Pauly says. “Maybe I’m going too far, but the job of development nowadays should not be to find new resources that we can massacre until the next time we find new resources. The job of development is to change the mode of interaction with the resource so it becomes sustainable.”

That’s what Mous’ team is trying to do. Working with the private sector and local communities, TNC is equipping Timor Sea fishing boats with smart weighing and measuring systems to enable better data collection at the point of capture. Previously, vessels kept pen and paper records, with crew members shouting numbers to each other at sea and one of them jotting it down. Now, they catch a fish, put it in a box on an electronic scale, and press a button to measure the weight, which is entered in a database. The companies share the data with TNC and can also use it for their own purposes.

Mous’ team is working with small-scale traders on nearby islands too. TNC trains them in species identification and pays them to keep more accurate records of the fish they buy. Expensive technology isn’t feasible at this scale — the typical partner works with a small house on the beach and four or five iceboxes — so they still use pen and paper.

One of TNC’s larger partners is PT Prima Indo Ikan. Its director, Lucas Papierniak, is a Hawaii native who used to hunt snapper and other fish with droplines in the deepwater fishery there. Then signs of overfishing began to emerge, and the U.S. government bought out the existing licenses to shut it down. (It was one of the George W. Bush administration’s final acts, Papierniak says.)

At the same time, cheaper echo sounding and GPS technology had made deepwater fisheries in Indonesia more accessible. And the closure of the Hawaiian fishery meant more demand for snapper, said to be abundant in the Timor Sea. Papierniak decided to try his luck.

The Timor Sea fishery is still in relatively good shape, all things considered. But Papierniak knows how easily things can go south. Constant monsoons as a result of the El Niño weather phenomenon, made more frequent by climate change, made last year a tough one for Prima Indo. Storms often limited his boats to protected bays, eroding his take significantly.

This year, Papiernak hopes to bounce back. TNC’s equipment and software are a welcome addition to his ships. “If you’re a fish company and you’re not thinking about sustainability, you’re not thinking about the sustainability of your company,” he says.

TNC’s project has already started to yield some results. The NGO just got Norpac, one of the buyers of snappers and groupers from the Timor Sea, to agree on a minimum size for the five species that are deepest in trouble. TNC is now trying to get other companies to follow suit. It is also encouraging the Indonesian government to establish legal minimum sizes and establish standards for labeling and traceability.

Mous is optimistic about finding the right technical and regulatory approaches to improve the fishery’s health. Increasingly, he says, markets demand sustainable fish, and the public is getting more aware on sustainability.

“The big question is about the political will to address problems with open access, and the political will to take sound, well-informed decisions that will affect fishing practices of the domestic fishing fleet,” he says. “I think the stars will align eventually, but I have no idea whether that will happen in two months or two years from now.”



The Conservation in the Age of Climate Change Project is an effort to explore how conservation organizations around the world are responding to rising seas, droughts, extreme weather events, and other threats posed by global warming.