With the help of the Nature Conservancy and other partners, fisherman have learned the best practices for fishing sustainably.
Wahoo Fish With the help of the Nature Conservancy and other partners, fisherman have learned the best practices for fishing sustainably. © Kevin Arnold

Stories in Indonesia

Sailing the Distance to Find Fish

"We often sail as far as Aru Sea, Papua," the captain of Millenium 01, Rocky Cornelisz, said. Fishermen in Kema 2, an area in Kema Sub-district, North Minahasa District, specialize in deep-sea fishing (at a depth of more than 50 meters), while their peers in Kema 3 are operating purse seine boats - locally known as pajeko - to fish. Purse seine boats are quite unique, with each having a smaller boat carrying a lantern. Depending on the season, deep-sea fishing boats could travel as far as the waters of Majene, Bacan, Ambon, Dobo, Tual, Panambulai, or even Kupang to find fish. According to Rocky, the waters of Majene and Mamuju have less fish than other places he has visited due to blast fishing. The seabed is also muddy, which is not particularly helpful because deep-sea demersal fish are attracted to coral reefs. Having been a captain for 6 years, Rocky started his career as an ordinary crew member. At the time, he was a small-time fisherman navigating his way through the waters of Kema, North Sulawesi to catch fish. However, back then, the sea overflowed with fish.

Like Rocky, most Kema residents work as fishermen, while the rest are farmers, self-employed, and civil servants. Boats in this sub-district are mainly owned by locals. Only a few belong to owners from Manado. Typically sized around 30 GT, any of these boats needs a crew of 14 to 16 members to operate. To angle for deep-sea demersal fish, the fishermen rely on handline fishing and fish in 100-250 meter deep waters. With the help of FishFinder, Rocky can determine the depth of the sea he is sailing across and learn what species of fish inhabit such depth. Experience has taught him about different species of fish living at different depth.

A two-week trip for a boat can result in a 4-ton fishing haul or 6 to 7 tons on good days. Even on bad days, usually they still manage to get 2 tons of fish. It proves how abundant fish are in Maluku and Papua waters.

Upon reaching the fishing site after around 5 days of sailing, the crew are rushing to fish. The boat engine is kept running when they fish during the day. At night, it is turned off and an anchor is cast. Fishing takes place from morning to evening and continues into the night if the fish are still nibbling at the baits. They use multiple large-size hooks and mackerels as baits. One line generally has 5 to 7 hooks spaced a little over 1 meter apart. With this setting, fish weighing above half a kilogram - mostly deep-water red snappers - are typically caught as the mouth of smaller fish will not fit these hooks. The largest fish they have ever caught is giant grouper. "They can weigh up to 110 kilograms," Rocky said. Sometimes, the hooks are stuck on reefs and must be cut.

A two-week trip for a boat can result in a 4-ton fishing haul or 6 to 7 tons on good days. Even on bad days, usually they still manage to get 2 tons of fish. It proves how abundant fish are in Maluku and Papua waters. One fishing trip costs at least 50 million rupiah in capital and requires 15 tons of ice to preserve the fish. The initial costs are borne by the owner, and after the fish are sold, the profits are shared between the boat owner, captain, and crew members.

Rocky and other fishermen in Kema rely on export companies located throughout North Sulawesi and Maluku Islands to purchase their deep-sea demersal fish. Meanwhile, local fish are to be sold in local markets. Kema has its own middlemen who are willing to buy any local fish they bring ashore. A small port in Kema also regularly holds fish auctions. However, their fish are often sold out to middlemen before needing to be put up for auction.

Deny Tacalao, the captain of the Tetap Setia, takes a picture of caught fish using a digital camera and a special measuring board.
Kema, North Sulawesi, Indonesia Deny Tacalao, the captain of the Tetap Setia, takes a picture of caught fish using a digital camera and a special measuring board. © Ed Wray

Unfortunately, local fish often fluctuate in price. When supplies are low, prices will start to creep up. On the other hand, they will start to drop sharply when supplies are plenty. Heintje, a boat owner in Kema, is trying to find an alternative way to help fishermen market fish and create added values by processing red snappers into fish fillets. He knows very well the challenges these fishermen have to go through every day. From an operational standpoint, owning a boat also creates another problem for Heintje. Today's boat maintenance cost has skyrocketed. No wonder, fewer boats are sailing the ocean. "We used to have around 30 boats up and running. Now, only about 20. Many are being repaired," Rocky explained. Heintje also has to compete with other owners to recruit crew members. In many instances, his crew suddenly quit and decided to work for another boat for the promise of a larger pay - forcing him to delay his boat's sailing schedule as finding immediate replacement was quite a challenge. Yet, it is not the only problem that worries this 3 boat owner. Crew members are often not good at financial planning. "They spend everything they earn from 2 weeks of sailing in a blink. Hardly saving anything," Heintje continued against the backdrop of his spacious house in Kema. As a result, they desperately need to go back to the sea again to earn more money.

Millenium 01 has spent more than a year being involved in the Crew Operated Data Recording System (CODRS) project. In addition to fishermen in Kema, TNC is also working with 139 fishermen in Bali, Kupang, Probolinggo, Lamongan, Galesong, Bontang, Balikpapan, Luwuk, Kema, Tual, Sorong, Dobo, and Timika. The objective is to address technical issues regarding fish reserves information, and provide useful information to managers and users in the fishing industry. The method is fairly simple. Boat crews take a photograph of every fish they catch on a measuring board before storing it in the boat's hold. The photographs will then be analyzed to determine fish distribution based on the frequency of fish length. TNC has equipped each boat with a vessel tracking unit or Spot Trace to identify the boat's location and the time and place of fishing. The boat movements can be monitored on I-fish, which is accessible to the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, TNC, and boat owners. Rocky hopes that more investors will come to Kema and invest their money in the local fishing industry after learning how prolific the species of fish recorded by this program.