Indonesia backtracks on plan criticized for ‘privatizing’ fisheries resources

Indonesia backtracks on plan criticized for ‘privatizing’ fisheries resources

  • Indonesia will not go ahead with a plan to allow foreign and domestic fishing companies to operate for up to 30 years under a contract system.
  • The plan was widely criticized by small-scale fishers and marine experts, who said it threatened to turn a public resource into a private one for the highest bidders.
  • The fisheries ministry now says it will revert to a quota-based system for allocating fishing permits, under which new investors will be eligible for “special permits” of up to 15 years.
  • Experts say details of the new fisheries management system must be made public, given that the “special permit” scheme looks suspiciously like the axed contract system.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has abandoned a plan to contract out long-term fishing rights to companies, following intense criticism from small-scale fishers and experts that the move would effectively privatize the country’s marine resources.

The plan, as proposed by the fisheries ministry, would have allowed local and foreign fishing companies to operate for at least 15 years and up to 30 years in a designated fishing area with a set catch quota and fishing gear. The ministry said in December 2021 that the contract scheme would boost economic growth while also guaranteeing stability for potential investors in the fishing sector.

On Aug. 8, however, Muhammad Zaini Hanafi, the ministry’s director-general of capture fisheries, said would not be going ahead. He said the ministry had considered feedback from marine experts and small-scale fishers, and added the new fisheries management approach would focus on catch quota-based fishing.

A fishing port in Java. Image by A. Asnawi/Mongabay Indonesia.

“This is a positive thing that we must laud the fisheries ministry for: they’ve listened to civil society’s concerns,” Harimuddin, manager adviser at the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, a Jakarta-based think tank, said in an online discussion on Aug. 11.

Experts widely panned the proposal, saying it would reduce the government’s authority in managing marine resources and also discriminate against marginalized fishing groups. They added that contract-based fisheries management was unconstitutional because it would turn a public resource into a private one.

“Is this policy really in line with the needs of traditional fishers and aimed to benefit them, or is this policy instead rolling out a red carpet for the business sustainability of corporations and foreign investors that want to exploit the fisheries resources?” Susan Herawati, secretary-general of the Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), an advocacy group, said in a statement.

Zaini from the fisheries ministry told local newspaper Kompas that his office would instead issue a “special permit” for new investors to still allow them to operate for 15 years, but without signing any contract. Potential investors in the fisheries sector will have to submit their request for a catch quota and go through a bidding process. Zaini added that companies with an existing fishing permit, known as an SIUP, would have to convert their current quota, determined per vessel, to a total catch quota.

There are few publicly available details about the “special permit” and the catch quota mechanism now being touted by the fisheries ministry. The available information from over the past year suggests the biggest difference over the contract approach is that the new strategy would allocate a maximum limit out of the annual total allowable catch (TAC) to every fishing stakeholder, from traditional and small-scale to large and even hobbyists. The current strategy mandates that every stakeholder is allowed to catch as much fish as they want as long as the total capture doesn’t exceed the TAC, which is capped at 80% of the estimated fish stock.

Some reports have indicated that industrial fishers would get up to 60% of the total allocation, with the remainder split between traditional and small fishers (20%), research (10%), and hobby and tourism (10%). Industrial fishers are also expected to help develop or revamp fish ports and facilities.

Zaini previously said investors have been allocated 5.6 million metric tons of fish catch in four industrial fishing zones: parts of the North Natuna Sea, the Aru Sea, parts of the Arafura and Timor seas, and parts of the Indian Ocean. He estimated the production value from these zones could reach 180 trillion rupiah ($12 billion), with the government set to get a tenth of that in revenue.

Indonesia’s marine capture fisheries employ around 2.7 million workers; the majority of Indonesian fishers are small-scale operators, with vessels smaller than 10 gross tonnage. Under the business-as-usual scenario, capture fisheries are projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.1% from 2012 to 2030.

The new regulation also seeks to further divide Indonesia’s fisheries zones into separate areas for traditional and small-scale fishers, for large fishing vessels, and for conservation efforts, such as spawning and nursery grounds. It will also regulate harvest quotas for each type of fish, the number of boats, landing ports, fishing periods, and the kinds of gear allowed in each fishing zone.

Harimuddin of the IOJI called on the fisheries ministry to publish all details about the “special permit” mechanism to allow the public an opportunity to study it and flag any potential problems. He said he was worried the suggested mechanism was effectively the same as the contract-based system, just going under a different name.

“Don’t let it discriminate against certain fishing groups,” Harimuddin said. “What would allow a [corporate] entity get special treatment when all of the public, especially small fishers, have the same right of access to the natural resources?”

Fishers in Java unloading their catch. Image by A. Asnawi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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