Indonesian fishermen face dire situation, see no hope for better future

Vicious cycle of poverty.

It was 11 a.m. and Sri Asih was waiting anxiously for her husband, Mat Roji, to come home from fishing. Each time Mat was away fishing, she was firstly worried for his safety and secondly, whether Mat was able to catch anything because if not, there was the very real possibility that their whole family might go hungry.

Fishermen coming back from a fishing trip.

Mat is one of hundreds of Indonesian traditional fishermen with 15 to 40 horsepower outboard-engine small boats plying their trade in the Madura Strait. The families live on the coast of Sidoarjo Regency.  The fishermen usually start their trip in the evening when the sun is going down and come back the next day around 11 am to 12 pm.

After a night of fishing, Mat was only able to catch 50 to 60 kg of fish.  Although not much, this was better than coming home empty-handed, which happened more than once and is gradually becoming regular.

Small, traditional fishing boats.

“Because we only have a small boat, even if there is an abundance of fish, we cannot catch too many as there is not enough space to store them.  The boat can at most carry up to 100 kg. But this situation is very rare and it is considered a very big harvest,” said Sri Asih.  

According to Sri, her husband’s fishing income is unstable, fluctuating wilding depending on many variable factors.  A good day will see Mat earn IDR 100,000 (US$6.80) to support Sri and four children, and this amount is hardly enough for the family of six. Moreover, Sri said their fish is sold to middlemen, who take a cut from the fish. 

Mat also has to set money aside for the fixed cost of each fishing trip, maintenance of the boat and engine, and repair of fishing net. There is barely any money left to save. In reality, Ma and his family, like all the other families living on the coast of Sidoarjo Regency, is living from hand to mouth.

So, in order to supplement the family’s income, Sri takes on a part-time job as a fish seller and she also provides deboning service. The fish she sells are those that are rejected by the middlemen. But business is not good and she hopes that the government can offer them some help.

“What is most needed now is a new engine. The one Mat is using is very old and often breaks down and we have to spend a lot of money to repair it, money which we cannot afford and have to borrow and we have accumulated debts on it. Then, because of inflation, fuel is now very expensive and hard to find. Of course, the boat we have is very rundown and is always at risk of sinking. We hope the government can give us some kind of subsidy to help with all these issues,” said Sri.

A villager offers fish deboning service.

Tarina Handaningrum, an official from the Sidoarjo Regency Government, said they are paying special attention to the plight of the fishermen.  The government will start to give out fuel subsidy soon after stopping it some time ago.  She said fishermen can get a certification letter from the government and use it to buy discounted fuel.  In addition, the government is also providing easy access to loans with low interest rates. 

Mohammad Islam, another fisherman staying on the coast of Sidoarjo, said the government assistance is still far from sufficient. “The fuel subsidy is only limited to 10 liters per boat, regardless of the size. Also, we have to go through a long bureaucratic process to get the letter and it is hard to find a fueling station which is offering discounted fuel to fishermen,” he said.

Islam, who has five children, added: “With not enough money to feed our family, where do we find the money to maintain and repair our engines and boats?  How can we think about new engines and boats if we do not have money for daily meals?

“Sometimes, we just ignored these problems and accidents happened. We don’t want to keep on borrowing money and go further into debts because we know with our miserable income, there is no way to pay off our debts.”

All private companies in Indonesia, big or small, are giving some forms of aid to the local community where they are operating through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. In Sidoarjo, the companies usually help fishermen or farmers.

Islam is grateful for the CRS programs and also appreciative that the government is giving free education and healthcare, and every three months, they receive cash assistance.

But still, although through the CSR programs, every now and then, a lucky fisherman will receive new fishing net, an engine, or even a boat with outboard engine, Islam said the assistance is, however, selective and limited and do not reach many of the fishermen living in the area. The community is still poor and living in poverty.

Small fishing boats moored at the river mouth.

Top photo credit: iStock/ platongkoh

All other photos credit: Ibnu Wibowo

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