Fri, 23 Jun 2000

Tragedy of the commons in RI archipelago

By Roger Michael Johnson and Daniel Rosyid

SURABAYA (JP): In a project here focusing on the sustainable technological development of traditional fishing vessels, an almost identical set of conclusions have been found to the comments of Mark V. Erdmann (The Jakarta Post, "Foreign fishing fleets are depriving locals of food.", June 9)

The scenario he describes is distressingly familiar on a worldwide basis. A thesis termed "the tragedy of the commons" is now used to describe its causes and inevitable effects.

It models that any freely held and uncontrolled resource will inevitably be systematically exploited until there is an environmental and economical collapse. In terms of fishing this means an ever-upward spiral of more and more technologically sophisticated vessels to the point of overcapitalization in terms of value produced.

What follows is reduced rentability from fishing grounds, followed by environmental and economic collapse. Such a collapse deals a mortal blow to coastal communities. The vessels used to pirate fish from Indonesian waters are a prime indicator of this scenario.

Over capitalization is illustrated by excessive horsepower of main engines; such vessels commonly have an excess of 10hp /ton as against an operating requirement for a fishing vessel other than a trawler of 2hp/ton to 3hp/ton.

The vessels are presumably operating in Indonesia's territorial waters because they have caused the environmental collapse of their own resources. Such vessels are operated aggressively and competitively under capitalistic principles, paying scant regard to either local or international law or catch regulations.

They will either move on to the next location, or reinvest the considerable profits in other financial areas. But for a poor developing country like Indonesia, whatever grandiose schemes the government has for the financial returns from fishery, the primary function of such an industry is to feed the coastal community.

Erdmann however misses an essential point. It is not the foreign operator that is the central cause of this problem, but the type of vessel and fishing operation employed.

Indonesia should rightfully exclude foreign fleets from exploiting its resources, just as a much smaller country, Iceland, did many years ago, resulting in a fishery war with the British.

However there are plans afoot to simply buy up such vessels from counties like South Korea, vessels that will presumably be made redundant by the new Palapa satellite system and tighter controls.

A recent meeting of the East Java cooperatives office discussed the purchase of up to 300 such vessels, each priced at around Rp 1.5 million. They were perhaps the very ones that have actively been engaged in pirating fish and employing illegal fishing practices like the use of bombs on reefs.

Similarly there are other plans to build such vessels here, which makes better sense than rewarding the pirates by buying up their boats.

The short-term rewards will be greater, but the inevitable long-term result will be the same -- loss of fishing grounds, environmental degradation, loss of tourist revenue, social problems, starvation and poverty in coastal communities.

When a wealthy developed country like Japan experiences the collapse of a national fishing industry, the people do not starve; they just widen the extent of their foreign operations and buying.

Neither is a viable model for maritime development here. In exploiting a resource like fish, apart from technological costs, there are heavy social and environmental costs that need to be accounted for.

In an exploitative system these are born by the coastal community, with whom none of the financial rewards are shared.

Is there an alternative strategy? We believe that there is. Or rather a combinations of strategies.

The first area is in respect of the control of fisheries, or "managing the commons." Regulations here at any single level are not effective, no matter how comprehensive.

What is needed is a skillful blend of state law, combined with specific law relating to the newly autonomous provinces, and relating to customary law, adat, at a very local level.

Such a scheme might provide for more protected areas where fishing is totally excluded; it is the reefs that are largely the breeding grounds for the pelagic species that the industry relies on.

Experience increasingly shows that such areas increase local income by giving ecotourism potential, and increase catches in adjoining areas because excess stock simply "leak out", as they become most prolific.

The periodic or seasonal closure of specific grounds is also effective. In general some principle of "sea tenure" needs to be worked out. Free access simply does not work, which is why customary-type law originally evolved in such communities.

The other aspect that needs to be empowered and developed is the "traditional fishermen." A term of wider significance is that of artisanal fisheries, as opposed to capitalist or industrialized fisheries as represented by said foreign vessels.

Roger Michael Johnson MA is a marine environmental anthropologist with the department of anthropology and human ecology, University of Kent at Canterbury, United Kingdom, and a visiting scholar at the marine technology postgraduate program of the Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember Surabaya. Dr Daniel Rosyid is a marine technologist and the institute's vice rector for cooperation. (