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Small is beautiful: Taking stock of improvement efforts in Indonesian handline tuna fisheries

Guest blog by Helen Packer, PhD student

As the largest archipelago in the world and with over 17,000 islands in the heart of the Coral Triangle, Indonesia’s past, present, and future is intimately tied to the ocean, including its rich tuna fisheries.

The Indonesian handline yellowfin tuna fishery has been in a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) since 2011. It all started with a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) pre-assessment commissioned by WWF Indonesia, and has now become a large multi-stakeholder effort including local and international NGOs, industry members (via Asosiasi Perikanan Pole and Line dan Handline Indonesia – Handline and Pole & Line Industry Association, AP2HI) and international buyers from both Europe and the US. The attention that Indonesian fisheries have attracted is considerable. Donors and buyers alike are funding multiple efforts that aim to improve the socio-economic aspects of small-scale tuna fisheries and to ready them to meet international market requirements for various environmental (MSC), social (Fair Trade USA) and traceability aspects: (US SIMP, EU IUU regulations, etc).

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Buru Handline fisherman – Photo: MDPI

The fishery may be small-scale, but working towards these goals has been no small task, as MDPI, an Indonesian NGO based out of Bali, can attest. MDPI (Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia – Community and Fisheries of Indonesia) was set up in 2013 with the founding philosophy coming from Anova Food USA’s Fishing & Living initiative: “Improving Life in the Fishing Communities”. In 2012, Anova’s Fishing & Living initiative entered a 1-year public-private partnership with USAID Indonesia to set up a pilot data collection program in the handline tuna fishery of Lombok, subsequently called I-Fish. The data collection program quickly grew to new sites with Anova hiring over 25 enumerators across different landing sites. Given the success of the data collection program and additional funding opportunities for traceability activities, MDPI was formed to take over and continue the program. MDPI has now grown to an organization of over 70 staff distributed across the country and funded by multiple international donors.

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MDPI annual gathering (October 2018) – Photo: MDPI.

MDPI’s motto is “Happy People, Many Fish” and has three main streams of work:

  1. The Fishery Improvement (FI) team focuses on fisheries data collection. When the FIP started, lack of data was the main issue with small-scale fisheries in Indonesia – there simply was not any data that could be used to assess the environmental sustainability of the fishery. MDPI now collects fisheries data across eastern Indonesia, including catch, effort and spatial fishing data. These data are uploaded to I-Fish, which is now used by NGOs and sent to the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF).
  2. The Fair Trade (FT) team focuses on the Fair Trade USA program. In 2013, a group of 70 fishermen became Fair Trade certified, making it the first fishery in the world to be Fair Trade certified. Today, the program now includes over 500 fishermen and continues to grow as more fishermen hear about the program. MDPI’s field staff lives with the FT communities and helps them with setting up fishermen associations, manage the Fair Trade premium and provide various trainings to empower them (e.g. financial management training). The program has brought direct benefits to fishers, and the Fair Trade standard is well-aligned with the FAO Guidelines on Securing Small Scale Fisheries.

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    Fair Trade fisherman association – Photo credit: MDPI
  3. The Supply Chain (SC) team focuses on traceability and monitoring. The SC team implements traceability systems to ensure that products coming from small-scale fisheries meet international market requirements and therefore are not excluded on the lucrative export market which supports their livelihood. The SC team also works on fisheries monitoring by piloting vessel tracking devices (e.g. SPOT TRACE and PDS) and electronic observer technologies (handheld cameras) suitable for small-scale fisheries.

I had the privilege of spending the last two weeks of November with MDPI, attending a harvest strategy workshop in Jakarta with government fisheries scientists and managers, visiting small-scale processing plants and meeting with the handline tuna fishermen of North Buru (a small island in the Maluku province). The goal of this visit was to start preparing the fishery and its supply chains for entering MSC full assessment before the end of the year. Even though I have been involved with MDPI’s work and the handline tuna fishery since 2013, this trip has reminded me once more of the fascinating complexity of tuna fisheries management from the international levels of fisheries management to the beaches where the tuna are landed.

One of the main sustainability challenges for all tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean is the absence of harvest strategies. Given the migratory and transboundary nature of tuna fisheries, harvest strategies must be developed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (or WCPFC), an inter-governmental body in charge of managing Pacific tuna fisheries. Member states like Indonesia are thus also working to develop harvest strategies that are compatible with the WCPFC’s, a process that started in the fall of 2014 and is still on-going. During my trip, I had the chance to attend one of the bi-annual harvest strategy meetings during which Indonesian fisheries managers and scientists, with the support of NGOs such as MDPI and international experts, met to review the result of different harvest control rules and their potential social, economic and environmental trade-offs. During this process, Indonesia is gaining expertise and knowledge on how harvest strategies are designed and taking the matter in their own hands. Together with other NGOs, MDPI has been an important partner in this process by providing some of the data needed by the government to conduct a stock assessment, the first step for designing suitable harvest strategies.

It seems that the harvest strategy process along with Indonesia’s ambition to sustainably manage its fisheries has triggered multiple changes in how Indonesia monitors its fisheries, with the introduction of new port sampling forms, electronic logbook programs and modernized database management between various departments related to fisheries management. These are massive changes in a country where data are still largely recorded on paper and mailed from the provinces to the central government. Moreover, the government will soon be able to integrate data collected by NGOs such as MDPI as part of their national fisheries database. On this note, on December 7th, MDPI and the Capture Fisheries division (KKP) of MMAF signed an MoU which solidifies their partnership. This sets a new precedent for the government of Indonesia to collaborate with NGOs who support sustainable fisheries and provide capacity where it is missing. The inclusion of handline tuna fisheries data is also the first step to ensure that small-scale tuna fisheries are no longer being overlooked by national monitoring programs and their interests are being taken into account. A very important step given that an estimated 90% of Indonesian vessels targeting tuna species in Indonesia are small-scale.

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MoU signing between MDPI and KKP – Photo: KKP/MMAF Indonesia

From the busy roads and air-conditioned hotels of Jakarta, I flew to the Maluku province to better understand the management process and how MDPI’s work in the field is supporting that effort. And boy! it is truly marvelous how MDPI has built a network of dedicated staff who collect daily detailed fisheries data from the isolated beaches and coastal villages of the Maluku islands.

Around 4pm, after a 12-hour fishing trip, two fishermen landed their 8m canoe on the beach as family, friends and MDPI staff rushed to greet them and help haul the canoe up onto the dry shore.

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Families and friends help haul the boat back on the beach – Photo: Helen Packer

Before the tuna loins are unloaded (interestingly, tuna is loined at sea in this fishery as the boat itself is not large enough to store an icebox suitable for a whole tuna) and sold to the local buyer, MDPI staff measure the loins and ask the fishermen a number of questions about his trip: fishing grounds, fuel use etc. These data are carefully recorded on a clipboard or tablet and directly uploaded to the I-Fish database.

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Loins are measured as soon as the fish is landed by MDPI’s sustainability coordinators – Photo: MDPI

From there, each loin is marked with the name of the fisherman who caught it and sent to the processing plant for further processing and export. Many fishermen in the area are Fair Trade certified and receive a premium placed in an account owned by the local fishermen’s association. Based on a consensus decision between the fishermen, the premium is spent on community projects such as improved trash disposal infrastructure, safety-at-sea equipment, saving accounts for the fishermen’s children or turtle conservation projects.

To ensure that the fishermen get their premium, the loins must be carefully traced until the last point of sale: the customer. MDPI was again instrumental in this process, working with Wageningen University to pilot a robust traceability system that allows us to trace each loin back to the community that caught it. This pilot was then modified into an electronic traceability system called Trace Tales for processing plants which were developed by MDPI and funded by USAID. Trace Tales has been a small revolution not only for traceability but also for business intelligence as it helps with reducing human error and gives real-time tracking of yield and inventory.

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TraceTales is an electronic traceability system developed by MDPI for seafood processing plants -Photo: MDPI.

Artisanal fishermen are some of the last fishermen that truly know their way around the ocean, often without GPS, and truly know how to locate the fish by observing the surface of the sea for hours, looking for signs such as dolphins, birds or flickering activity below the surface. This requires incredible experience, patience and observation skills. This is more than a way of fishing, it is a way of life that deserves to be preserved. Making sure that these fishermen’s interests are represented, for example by collecting fisheries data for management, telling their stories to consumers on the other side of the world and making sure they retain their access to the lucrative export market, is what MDPI together with Anova and other stakeholders aim to do. Happy people, many fish!

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