Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and Fishy Politics: Time to Consider Complex Realities

Susi Pudjiastuti, Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Last week, Jakarta saw the demonstration of hundreds of fishermen under the Indonesian Fisherman Alliance demanding the reshuffling of Minister of Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti. According to official statements, the demonstration provides 10 demands aside from the one mentioned above, such as the cancellation of all of Susi’s policies and the urging of police investigation to the alleged involvement of Susi in the salt import scandal.

This demonstration occurs in a time where, from a macro-economic perspective, there is a positive growth on the fishery sector of Indonesia. However, the existence of these demonstrations are enough indicators that whatever is happening, the current policies made by Susi  is still unsettling to grassroots fishermen.

Out of all of Susi’s policies, one that is most strongly opposed by these demonstration is the banning of trawl nets, or more commonly known as cantrang, as a method of fishery. Many fishermen have complained that it now takes a longer time to fish a smaller amount of catch, hurting their household income.

The consideration to process these demands now is in the hands of President Jokowi, someone that is known to not be afraid in make stern reshuffling decisions.

From a political constellation standpoint, it might seem lucrative for Jokowi to accept such demand. Being an independent minister that has no strong affiliations to existing political parties, there can only be little political consequence in letting her go or intervening and changing her policies.

On the other end, the fishermen living in coastal areas of Central Java and East Java, those impacted negatively by this policy, are strong voter bases of Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB), the government coalition’s largest supported Islamic political party. It is not a surprise, as a result there has been a strong push from PKB in support of the fishermen’s demand.

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Since early this year, the Chairman of the PKB, Muhaimin Iskandar, has been very vocal in opposing the policy; demanding discussions with Susi regarding the polemic issue of trawl use and its impact to the small fishermen, touring Java’s northern coast on late April to monitor its impact, and even going so far as demanding the issue to be discussed in the cabinet plenary session.

Jokowi’s fear in being silent over this matter is understandable. His silence on it can easily be twisted to mean one of three things; first, a direct isolation of the concern of his coalition party, which might well result in a shaky coalition moving forward and an uncertain one in the 2019 election.

Second, as an ignorance of grassroots concern in support for elite aristocratic policies, being portrayed as a Jokowi’s fall from his once widely supported image as a grassroots politician. Or worse, third, as most of these fishermen are strong supporters of an Islamic party, a willful silence over Islamic concern; a tactic that might be used in the 2019 elections as parties see the effectiveness of such method in the recent Jakarta gubernatorial race.

Seemingly under these concerns, the President has addressed these concerns and made the instruction to extend the use of trawl nets until late 2017, especially in Central Java. However, particularly in the case of trawl nets and also in regards to the demonstration’s other demands, Jokowi needs to rise above short-term political goals in focus of the long-term economic and environmental sustainability impact over the subject.

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Grasping the impacts of trawling is not an easy task and it may not be immediately visible. At the expense of oversimplification, we need to break it down to short and long term impacts, impacts to the fish population and diversity, impacts to the sea, and impacts to other possible economic sources—such as eco-tourism.

Trawling nets indiscriminately catch sea creatures in the sea. The smaller the holes in the nets, the more it can catch sea creature of smaller size. Research show that since some of these creatures such as juvenile and undersized fish have low economic value, some of these ended up discarded (Kelleher 2005). Yes, the size of discarded fish may vary in different regions, but why do we waste the resource if it can be saved? Overall, when there is a continued use of trawl nets, it can be difficult for the fish population to grow. If everyone is allowed to use trawl nets, we may have Tragedy of the commons—a situation in which everyone uses trawl nets to maximize individual profit—at the expense of long term sustainability.

The resulting drags that ensue when trawl nets are used can also disturb the marine ecosystem—sea grass, kelp, and valuable coral reefs can also be destroyed along the way. This can negatively impact the sea ecosystem in the long run.

These trawl nets can result in negative externalities that we will pass our future generations. Yes, trawl net may enable us to enjoy abundance of variety of fish at affordable price, but its usage may prevent our future generations to enjoy fish the way we do now.

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Though Susi’s trawl net policy direction lies in good intention and vision, this does not mean however they are immune to criticism and scrutiny. The issue of negative externalities from trawl use is more complex than what it may seem, and thus needs a more nuanced approach in the regulation of its use.

Such nuanced approach needs to start with the understanding that all fishing methods will carry negative environmental impact, depending on how and in what seabed landscape it is used on. The trawl net method is no exception. Moving forward, Susi needs to fine-tune area-specific policies on the issue of trawl nets; allowing its use in areas that don’t have kelp and coral reefs that needs protecting and banning them in places that do.

The issue of maritime livelihood and ocean sustainability is certainly an issue that hard to balance, and determining whether it is fair to force people to change the way they sustain their life can indeed be harder. But the government in deciding the answer cannot solely rely on gauging political trade-offs. Policies as important as maritime issues must slide away from politics, and nuance itself to take into account its many complex realities.

Read more:

DiCaprio Jatuh Cinta Menteri Susi

Nasionalisme Menteri Susi Pudjiastuti

Menteri Susi, Retno Marsudi, dan Krisis Laut Cina Selatan

Written by Alif Satria

Alif Satria

Alumni Hubungan Internasional Universitas Gadjah Mada, Research Assistant di Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

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