Mongabay: Supporting fisher communities to adapt to the new normal

In an article on Mongabay Indonesia, Nisa Syahidah explores how community-based organisations in Indonesia are supporting fisher communities to adapt to the new normal, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

English translation:

Supporting fisher communities towards the new normal

Unu Asumbo counted the rupiah in his hand. He’d just sold his catch through FishFresh, an initiative of the Gorontalo Natural Resources Management (Japesda) Advocacy Network to market fish online for fishermen affected by the pandemic.

Unu is a fisherman from Torosiaje Jaya Village, Popayato District, Pohuwato Regency, Gorontalo – a Bajau village about 100 kilometers from the capital of Pohuwato, Marisa. The name of this village is also said to come from the Bajo language – toro means cape, and siaje means stopover.

Like many fishermen across Indonesia, Unu is feeling the bitterness of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also dealing with the shift to the southern wind season, when strong winds start coming in from the south; the high waves of the sea at this time of year aren’t too friendly to fishers. Usually he’s able to catch a lot of fish, including bubara fish, snapper, and mackerel. But now his catch is reduced, and sometimes he catches nothing at all. 

Before the pandemic, Unu would sell his fish to local suppliers. His life changed completely when the supplier ceased operation due to the pandemic. The fishery supply chain almost stopped and his income dropped dramatically as the price of bubara and snapper fell more than 50%.

Unu initially only sold fish in the local market, or caught it to eat at home with his wife and three children. Since then, he’s joined the FishFresh initiative established by Japesda which connects fishermen with consumers in the city of Gorontalo and surrounding areas.

Japesda facilitates sales so that small-scale fishermen get recognition and a reasonable price for their environmentally friendly fishing efforts. “My initial concern was that my catch would not be sold, but with help from FishFresh I’m selling it in the city,” Unu said.

“FishFresh was established after we mapped the potential of fisheries on the Gorontalo coast last March. We found that the catch of fishermen was quite abundant, but the selling price was relatively low. So, we are trying to help market fishers’ products through FishFresh, and farmers through Ramba-Ramba online,” said Nur Ain Lapolo, Director of Japesda.

“Not only does this benefit farmers and fishers, but it also makes it easier for buyers in Gorontalo City who can have their orders delivered to them at home,” added Nur Ain Lapolo.

Fisher community empowerment in West Kalimantan

In Sungai Nibung Village, Teluk Pakedai Subdistrict, Kubu Raya, Alek and Jaka feel the same way as Unu. Both are fishermen who catch crabs, fish and shrimp – invertebrates that live in the Nibung River mangrove forest area. Alek has been a fisherman for more than 45 years. Jaka is younger, at 20 years old.

Alek and Jaka felt the impact of a 30% fall in prices, so they weren’t going to sea because they could not sell their catch for a decent price. Both are members of the Conservation Community Business Services (PUMK). PUMK is a programme initiated by Planet Indonesia Foundation (YPI) in West Kalimantan to support coastal communities to protect their natural resources through strengthening the local economy.

Alek and Jaka have been PUMK members for three years, through which they’ve learnt to save and plan finances, while engaging in various conservation activities with YPI. As part of the programme, they work to maintain and manage Sungai Nibung Village Forest, so that the benefits remain sustainable. For example, through an open and close river system, where the community (supported by YPI) implements a fishing ban for a certain period. This enables the habitat to restore and allows fish, shrimp, and crabs to breed. Both Alek and Jaka also joined in patrolling the river area when it was closed.

As PUMK members, they are entitled to a welfare fund of Rp750,000 to ease the burden of the impacts of the pandemic.

“This funding has helped me to buy groceries and bait for crabs,” said Jaka. “With the money, I made sure to use the money responsibly, such as not buying fishing equipment that was illegal or not environmentally friendly,” he added.

PUMK aims to strengthen the capital of community members in developing productive businesses, as well as facilitating the marketing of sustainable production through a conservation cooperative scheme that addresses the root causes of biodiversity loss in vulnerable ecosystems.

PUMK urges its members to keep aside money from these funds to save. “I was able to buy fishing gear from the savings at PUMK, there was no need to borrow money from collectors or chart owners in the village,” said Alek.

“I also hope that in the future, PUMK on the Nibung River will continue to advance and increase so that I can continue saving,” said Alek again to Mizan, YPI staff in Kubu Raya.

Holistic support

Japesda and YPI are taking a holistic approach to conservation programmes with the community. YPI integrates ecosystem conservation and livelihood diversification through sustainable support between community (social), economic and natural (ecological) relations.

In addition to supporting the community in an economic context, YPI runs a health programme called Healthy Families, to increase access for women and young people to health services. The programme also offers literacy education to increase public awareness of the importance of education at an early age.

YPI encourages sustainable natural resource management through fisheries programmes. These aim to protect mangrove ecosystems by implementing a temporary coastal cover system by involving the community to conserve marine biota in a sustainable manner.

“PUMK is the backbone of our overall program to improve community welfare, which will thus have an impact on environmental preservation in support of broad conservation efforts in West Kalimantan,” said Miftah, Community Empowerment Manager, YPI.

“We are currently identifying needs at the community level, thus helping us take strategic steps forward to strengthen the program and community resilience,” Miftah added.

Meanwhile, Japesda has a similar dream in Gorontalo, “Welcoming the new normal, Japesda’s economic development division will continue to develop FishFresh and Ramba-Ramba online by looking at market opportunities and working with several potential partners to help fishers, farmers, and small businesses in marketing their products online,” said Ain.

Japesda also strengthens community resilience by establishing local food stalls in the villages where they work, so that community members can earn an income selling mangrove sticks, shredded anchovies, roa fish sauce, cassava chips, chocolate pia, virgin coconut oil and many more.

Towards the new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new normal, and market demand is now gradually increasing again. Jaka and Alek are now back at sea, but are keeping up social distancing rules and paying attention to their health. 

Unu also went back to sea as the local market has begun to open and there are more buyers again, but the prices are still relatively low. Probably, this is because most people, both local buyers, fish collectors, and people from outside the village are still trying to recover from the weak economic conditions of the pandemic.

There is much hope for these fishermen as they adapt to a new normal. For Jaka, he wants to get a new boat to make the most of the improving catches. “I hope that fishermen can continue to be cared for and helped,”. Jaka also hopes that in the future he can do activities without being overshadowed by fear again.

“Hopefully in the future, the purchase price offered to fishers who fish in an environmentally friendly way can be valued at a high enough price,” Unu also expressed his hope.

For Unu and fellow fishermen in Gorontalo and other regions in Central Sulawesi such as Banggai Regency, the situation is becoming more challenging with the arrival of the southern wind season. In this season, the risk of going to sea is much higher, as dangerous sea conditions can make fishing more challenging and affect the catch.

Jalipati Tuheteru, a companion of the Japesda field in Uwedikan Village, Luwuk Timur District, Banggai Regency, revealed that fishermen now choose to work on land to supplement their income, for example making boats or repairing fishing gear.

With various crises facing fishermen in the future, it is important for organisations to improve the social security of the communities they support. For example, through the diversification of fishing livelihoods and financial planning programmes for fisher families.

“The challenge ahead for fishermen is to support market access and understand how market conditions in this new normal era can remain stable whilst supporting the economic resources of fishing communities,” said Miftah.

“Then, at the local level there is also a need for diversification of fishery products, so that community economic resilience can still be awakened in times of crisis.”


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