The Slippery Issue of Fair Trade Fish

The Slippery Issue of Fair Trade Fish

Cooperation and hard work between a wide range of players from the government in Jakarta down to the humble fishers of Maluku paid off big time last month. Four fishing associations based in Buru and Ambon became the first in the world to gain Fair Trade certification for wild-caught fish. Gentle Reader, this would be a huge achievement for any country. Indonesia, as one of the biggest fish producing countries in the world, should be very proud of what has been achieved in Buru and Ambon.

Selling fish domestically and internationally is an important component of Indonesia’s economy. The total value of fisheries products from Indonesia exceeded US$ 14 billion in 2010, with tuna being a large component of this. These statistics are a bit dated but give an indication of the industry’s size. With a 2011 total production of well over 12 million metric tons (based on official statistics), Indonesia is the world’s second largest producer of fisheries products after China. This includes over five million metric tons from marine fisheries and the rest from farmed fish, seaweed and freshwater fish. There are at least 5.5 million people working in fisheries and related industries across the archipelago. That’s a lot of families relying on sustainable fishing stock.

The epicenter of the Earth’s marine biodiversity is called the Coral Triangle, a region that includes Eastern Indonesia, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, Malaysian parts of Borneo, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The highest concentration of marine species is found in Eastern Indonesia and the Southern Philippines, which supports millions of coastal people with ecosystem goods and services, mainly from small and medium scale fisheries. Indonesia is by far the largest producer of fisheries products in the Coral Triangle.

So, are there enough fish to go around? Even with all our modern technology, it’s very hard to count fish. They wander around and won’t stand still at census time. Evaluating the state of fish stocks is extremely difficult; even in the best of cases, any numbers are educated guesses.

Fish have become a complex and political hot potato worldwide. Much export fish from Southeast Asia goes to the United States and Europe. Sustainability became an issue about three years ago and is now a priority for fish buyers, retailers and restaurants. Global market demand is shifting towards products that are not only fresh, tasty and safe but also traceable and sourced from transparent and sustainable fisheries. To be politically correct, fish need an eco-label or to be part of a Fisheries Improvement Program (FIP), which is a stepping stone process to an eco-label.

I spoke to fisheries scientist Momo Kochen, Director of Programs at Yayasan Masyarakat dan Parikanan Indonesia (MDPI). On behalf of American company Anova Food LLC, MDPI has been working closely as a support organization with Indonesia’s bureaucracy and fishers to help them reach world standards of sustainability in tuna fishing and post harvest management. “Selling fish used to be just about quality,” she told me. “Now sustainability and social standards are major issues that must be adhered to for acceptance by American and European markets. Many of these markets are now closed to Indonesian fish because it’s not certified.”

Indonesia is a big player in world fisheries. ”It’s very exciting here. The world is looking at tuna and the huge potential in Indonesia,” Momo said. “At seafood shows and fisheries conferences around the world everyone is talking about Indonesia and the demand for small scale production because of food security and sustainability issues.”

The pilot project, which has been running in Muluku since mid-2103, started as a Corporate Social Responsibility program by Anova Foods, which found it increasingly difficult to sell uncertified fish. The project began with the introduction of circle hooks, data collection and placing observers on the fishing boats to make sure sharks and turtles were released. In the field, 125 fishers formed four groups and voted in a Fair Trade committee. Every year the groups implement social (working conditions, collective bargaining, no child labour, safety etc) and environmental protocols that together create a sustainable fishery.

Although strict, the Fair Trade system brings rewards to the fishers’ communities. In Indonesia’s normal supply chain, the fisher sells to middleman, who sells to a processor, who exports the fish to an importer; they all add a percentage to the price. With Fair Trade fish, the consumer pays a premium to the importer who pays this directly back into the fisher group’s Fair Trade committee bank account. Needs assessments at the community level determine whether the money is used for fishers’ access to fuel and ice, libraries and other community services or other locally decided benefits. Anova Food will soon be bringing this first Fair Trade certified handline tuna to the American market from Indonesia, and the Fair Trade fishers of Ambon and Buru will begin to realise the tangible advantages of sustainability.

The project ensured that data protocols met international standards but at that time the Indonesian government, although interested in the data, lacked the technology to receive or process it. However it is now beginning to take the lead on stock assessment studies. Recently the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, together with international experts and MDPI, pooled information about harvest control rules in the waters of the Indonesia Archipelago.

“The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the main fish certifier; it’s the gold standard really,” Momo explained. “All the big western fisheries, about 300 of them, are certified by MSC now, but most of these are in developed countries. The MSC is now developing a system which aims to increasingly include developing countries in the certification sphere. There is no MSC certified fish in Indonesia yet, although it’s one of largest fish producing nations in the world. The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF) is aware that if they don’t join the movement, Indonesia will be left behind, so they are working hard on compliance. Even Japan, which had no interest in sustainability until recently, is now beginning to take action.”

As with so many issues in this country, there can be a wide gap between good intentions at top (Jakarta) and reality at bottom (the fisher in the boat). Besides being contentious and political, policing fisheries around the archipelago is devilishly difficult. According to The Nature Conservancy, Indonesia does not have well-established mechanisms to control the development of marine capture fisheries. Fisheries are largely open-access, so it comes as no surprise that most of Indonesia’s fish stocks are either over-exploited or fully-exploited. Since boats smaller than 30 Gross Tons (GT) are licensed by local government, only about a third of the capacity of the marine fishing fleet is under direct control of national government. Boats smaller than 5 GT don’t need a fishing license at all, they are only required to register at the local fisheries office. Therefore a large part of the Indonesian fishing fleet is uncontrolled.

And because of Indonesia’s long coastlines, poaching is a huge issue. Thai and Taiwanese vessels take an unknown but probably very large amount of Indonesian fish illegally. So managing this country’s fishing industry is a big and multi-dimensional job. The Fair Trade certification is a significant step forward.

What can we do as consumers to support sustainable fisheries? There’s lots of accessible information about the state of the world’s fisheries at, a branch of Slow Food. It’s Not on My Plate list includes bluefin tuna, farmed shrimp, wild Atlantic and farmed salmon, swordfish and sharks. Visit their website to see why these species should be avoided. And when you order fish at a restaurant, ask where it came from.

Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail is available from :
– Ganesha Books in Ubud, Sanur and
– Amazon downloadable for Kindle

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