Why Indonesian fishermen remain poor

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Keisya Librani

Fishermen move their catch at the Dadap fishing village, Tangerang Regency, in 2021.

Fishermen move their catch at the Dadap fishing village, Tangerang Regency, in 2021. (Keisya Librani)

“My ancestors were sailors. They loved to sail the vast ocean. Crashing the waves, fearless.. Brave young people, get up now! To the sea, we go!” 

Most Indonesians will be familiar with the lyrics of a famous children’s song about their sailor ancestors, boasting pride as a maritime nation. But statistics show that the number of people willing to take up fishing as a job have continued to decline. Fishermen in Indonesia also continue to live on the verge of poverty, despite the country being the largest archipelagic nation on earth.

Suswanto, a Cirebon native who lives in the coastal area of Dadap, Tangerang regency–only an hour away from the country’s capital Jakarta–has a small fishing boat and relied on it for a living for years. He goes to the sea only during certain seasons. Usually, he catches crabs and fish. During the fishing season, Suswanto can get five to ten kilograms of fish per trip. Later, the fish will be sold at Rp15,000 (US$1) per kilogram.

“Fishermen’s daily income is unpredictable. Sometimes we can get a month’s worth of income in a day. We get an average of Rp 30 million per year,” he said recently.

With only an average of Rp2.5 million per month, he has to cover living expenses, buy diesel fuel and fishing nets, as well as paying for boat maintenance.

 In Dadap, fishermen rely on ‘investors’ who provide capital and loans so they can sail. In return, the fishermen will sell their catch to the lenders, who usually buy the catch at a fairly low price.

 “Perhaps, if there is an auction here, it will be better. There are many boats here, many fishermen, but there is no auction,” he said.

According to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the number of fishermen tends to fluctuate from year to year between 2010 and 2018. The number saw a significant drop from 2018 to 2019, by over 200,000 from 2,292,024 to 2,088,959.

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Young people are also uninterested in taking up fishing as a job. Even fishermen discouraged their children from following in their step due to the job’s precarity.

Unsustainable development practices, the Covid-19 pandemic, and climate crisis have also continued to threaten fishermen’s livelihoods. 

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Based on the data above, the total capture fisheries production decreased significantly in 2020. 

In the Dadap area, factory waste affected fishermen’s marine catch.

“When the waste comes, fishermen suffer for a month,” Suswanto said. 

Fishermen cannot predict when the waste would be released–it can be once a week or once a month. Fishermen had reported the problem to the local government, who subsequently conducted inspections, but nothing has changed.

“It is difficult to find fish and crabs when there is waste,” Suswanto said. 

A new problem arose in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when thieves stole their fishing gear, inflicting losses up to hundreds of millions. 

“The total loss is almost hundreds of millions because there is one fisherman who lost all his fishing gear, as well as his boats,” said Deddy Sopian, a representative of the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Union (KNTI) Dadap chapter. He added that the fishermen had reported the case to the police but they have yet to catch the perpetrators. 

Climate change is another factor that affects the productivity of the fisheries industry. Kosambi coastal area in Tangerang is one of the areas that got severely affected by rising sea levels. Floods have become part of the daily life of people living in Kosambi.

A few years back, floods only happened during the rainy season and high tide. But now, it happens almost everyday. Every morning, they have to deal with sea water swarming into their house. 

In order to keep the water out, they have to constantly elevate their living areas using wooden boards. The flood damaged the road. Roads around the area are full of stones and pits, making it hard and dangerous for people to commute. 

“Ever since they started the reclamation project, the flood keeps on coming in,” Suswanto said, referring to the $40 billion project to build 17 artificial islands off the northern coast of Jakarta. The ongoing project has been met with resistance from environmental and urban activists.  

Government programs yet to reach local fishermen

The Indonesian government has introduced KUSUKA, or the Maritime and Fisheries Industry Players Card, a platform under which fishermen can apply for insurance and financing programs. However, very few fishermen managed to register and get KUSUKA cards largely because the government failed to educate local fishermen about the program. A survey by the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Union showed that 72% of fishermen did not know how to get the cards.

According to data from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, only 923,767 fishermen own KUSUKA cards.

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One of Suswanto’s colleagues has tried to go to the Marine and Fisheries Office to apply for KUSUKA. The office declined the request.

“The office didn’t help us. We still don’t understand why. Either the program had not reached the office or they just didn’t want to serve us––I have no idea,” explains Suswanto.

The fishermen eventually got help from a non-governmental organisation, the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Union organisation, to apply for KUSUKA cards.

Subsidised fuel also remains inaccessible. Fishermen are entitled to receive diesel fuel subsidies provided by the government. A survey by the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Union showed that 82.08% of local fishermen do not have access to subsidised fuel in their area.

“In the end, we had to borrow money to purchase gas,” he continues. This is also one of the many reasons why the welfare of local fishermen is constantly unstable.

Women of coastal communities struggle to change fate 

Women in the fishing community are just as vulnerable. Just take Novi, a housewife who lives in Ujungpangkah District, Gresik Regency, home to the local fishing community, as an example. She shells clams and crabs to make ends meet. 

“Processed clams will be worth more. If they have been peeled, they can be sold for up to Rp 30,000 or Rp 25,000 per kilogram. Unprocessed clams only worth Rp 2,000 to Rp 3,000 per kilogram,” she said.

Many women in the fishing community make money by taking up jobs like the one that Novi does, or other jobs that support their fishermen husbands.  

Law Number 7/2016 on the Protection and Empowerment of Fishermen, Fish Farmers, and Salt Farmers covers coastal women as a part of fishermen’s households, but local NGOs said that the State has yet to provide comprehensive protection for them.

“Coastal women need just as much protection as fishermen,” Anggun Cipta, the chairwoman of Indonesia Coastal Women Association (KPPI) Gresik chapter, said. 

Iing Rohimin, the secretary general of the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Union (KNTI), said that he hoped the government would pay more attention to scientific studies and involve fishermen in policy making, ensuring that every decision taken does not only benefit certain parties.

At the time of writing, the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry had not responded to queries.