Thu, 31 Jul 2003

Les villagers promote sustainable fishing

Pariama Hutasoit, Contributor, Buleleng, North Bali

Blessed with abundant marine resources, Bali waters are home to a wide variety of underwater species, including aquarium fish -- lucrative for local fishermen as well as greedy businessmen.

Tropical fish have become one of the island's top export commodities, generating huge amounts of foreign exchange in return. Most of the fish are exported to countries like the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

In Les, a remote fishing village in Buleleng regency, North Bali, some 100 kilometers northeast of Denpasar, an extensive supply of tropical fish has attracted people to catch the valuable commodities and, in the process, many of them are netted using explosives.

Exploitation of marine resource in this village started in the early l980s when the demand for tropical fish sharply increased, both in local and international markets.

Arsonetri, a researcher at Bahtera Nusantara Foundation (BNF), a non-governmental organization focusing on coastal development and preservation, explained that increased demand for aquarium fish had caused overfishing in Indonesian waters, including Bali.

"They (local fishermen) never bother to think that the use of poisons and explosives will cause serious environmental damage, which, in the end, will also destroy and eliminate the once rich marine resources and sustainability of underwater life," he said.

A survey carried out by the foundation in 2001 revealed that underwater life in Les village and its neighboring areas was in a very serious and severe state due to overfishing and the use of deadly substances like potassium cyanide.

The poor fishermen in Les village thought only of catching as many fish as possible. "They then sell their catch immediately so they can feed their families. Environmental considerations and longer-term consequences never cross their minds," Arsonetri said.

He said that most of the fishermen did not know any alternative to their destructive and unsustainable fishing practices.

"They just don't realize that later, overfishing will take away their own livelihood, so they must be made aware of other fishing methods," he said.

Once, Les was a busy small fishing port in north Bali where traditional seamen from eastern Indonesia anchored their fishing fleets. In the past, fishermen in Les used modest and simple fishing tools like dragnets and hooks to catch fish. In later developments, they were introduced to "instant and easy" fishing techniques such as the use of poisonous potassium cyanide.

"It was easy to catch fish if we used this potent chemical substance," admitted Wayan Gobleg, a local fisherman who claimed he had stopped using cyanide.

Gobleg acknowledged that many of his friends were already aware of the disastrous consequences of using potassium cyanide.

"But the thought of getting more money and meeting the huge market demand forced us to use the fastest and easiest method," he said.

Destructive fishing techniques badly affect fishing yields. The quality of tropical fish dropped alarmingly due to exposure to hazardous chemical elements. As a result, the market price for the commodity dropped too.

"Many of the fish (caught using destructive methods) went to the black market and were sold at a very low price because of their physical condition," he said.

Arsonetri explained each time they fished, the fishermen would use around 50 grams potassium cyanide, enough to destroy a 25- square-meter area of coral reef, the place where fish live, breed, hide and feed.

He assumed that if 50 fishermen were working in Les waters, they would have used around 2.5 kilograms of potassium cyanide per day. Every month, they caught at least 40,000 tropical fish, of 57 different species.

"You can picture for yourself the hazards to which tropical fish and other marine creatures have been exposed for the last 20 years," he said.

As of 2001, fishermen in the village still used potassium, but in the last few months BNF has been promoting a more environmentally friendly fishing technique to local fishermen.

The foundation has, for instance, run a series of workshops with advocacy on how to preserve underwater species and the environment, as well as promoting sustainable fishing practices.

Instead of using potassium, fishermen were required to use only a one-meter-by-six-meter-wide net to catch fish. In addition, the foundation also provided the fishermen with simple management and marketing skills.

Coral reef management has also been introduced, increasing local fishermen's awareness about the real function of corals.

After two years of training, Les fishermen can be proud of their hard and painstaking work. They have not only benefited from exporting tropical fish but are also able to attract visitors, mainly divers, to plunge into the deep and beautifully preserved underwater life.

Les village is a pilot rural project in Bali, which promotes sustainable fishing. If these local fishermen can play a significant role in maintaining the sustainability of marine resources, the large-scale fishing industry can certainly do it, too.