The Seven Seas

The Seven Seas News - October 2015

East of Flores - Tuna, Tuna, Tuna

By Lida Pet-Soede

Diving in Indonesia is so special because of the enormous diversity in corals and fish. Within the Coral Triangle region, Indonesia lies at the nexus of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the South China Sea-where currents collide within a complex mix of islands and archipelagos, creating a dramatic upwelling of nutrients. This is part of the reason why the underwater reef world is so diverse but these upwellings also support some of the world's largest stocks of commercially-important species of tuna, including skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye, albacore, and southern bluefin.

Indonesia harvests 15 percent of the world's skipjack tuna and over a quarter of the large valuable tunas (yellowfin, bigeye, albacore and southern bluefin tuna combined) caught in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. Moreover, Indonesia's waters provide 'ecosystem services' to other nations, where tuna fleets target adult tunas that were born and raised in Indonesia's waters.

Dogtooth Tuna

Indonesia's tuna fisheries are characterized by problematic practices that include overharvesting of adults, targeted capture of juvenile tuna ("baby tuna") and pervasive illegal unregulated and unreported fishing. While the current government is working hard to address illegal entry and fishing activities of medium to large scale foreign vessels, Indonesia's own coastal fisheries also contribute substantially to over-fishing and to the unregulated harvesting of tuna's food sources (e.g., scads). The small-scale tuna industry is significant, representing about 40% of total production and is gaining. Within Indonesia, the small scale sector has already overtaken tuna production of the commercial sector.

With support of some conservation NGOs, Indonesia established and endorsed a national tuna management plan in 2015 to improve its fisheries with an eye towards Marine Stewardship Council certification and compliance with its membership in regional fisheries management organisations. The establishment of what is called "harvest control rules" is currently high on the list of priorities for the Indonesian National Tuna Plan. Recently, information on the composition of the tuna catches shows that within Indonesian waters, Indonesian fishers catch more and more immature and sub-adult tunas so any harvest control rules should firstly be focussed on reducing the catch of the "babies".

Lida speaking with local tuna fishers
Lida speaking with local tuna fishers in Sendang Biru in South Java about the number of juvenile tuna in their hand-line catches. (Photo: PlukMediaNL)
Fishers see their operational costs increase
Fishers see their operational costs increase as they need to stock up on ice as they go farther to catch large tunas. (Photo: PlukMediaNL)

Last year I went to visit one of Indonesia's coastal tuna fishing harbors in Sendang Biru along the south coast of Java. Sendang Biru fishers claim that tuna catches dropped supposedly because the big tunas' are caught by big vessels in deep international waters. Their success to catch any tuna now depends on luring tuna's in to school and hang around Fish Attracting Devices. By visiting these FADs each day the fishers spent less time and fuel searching for schools of tuna. However, it's mostly juvenile tunas that gather around the FADs and end up on the hooks. Because there is a good domestic and export market for any type of tuna, the buyers happily take any size of fish from the auction floor in Sendang Biru. This industry supports not only the hundreds of fishing vessells, the wifes and children also have jobs carrying the fish ashore, keeping the fish fresh before auction, and selling coffee, sigarettes and snacks throughout the fish trading hours.

Local fishers are quite aware that their catches include "baby-tuna" and they also worry that if too many babies are caught, the tuna population cannot regenerate and support their fisheries in the long run. But they can't figure out by themselves what the best solution is. If the buying of 'babies' stops, they will also no longer catch them, but how can they get some bigger tuna's into their boats if the international and larger indonesian vessels catch them all in deep waters?

More recently, we dived off the south coast of Alor. This area is now starting to be famous for some outstanding black sand critter diving, more stunning reef formations than known so far and ofcourse, the potential to encounter large marine wildlife up close. Our group saw Mola-Mola or Ocean Sun fish, we kayakked with blue whales and sperm whales and some swam with hammer head sharks. This time we were also lucky to have a male, female and calf Orca bow ride with the Seven Seas for a good part of one morning!

Already happy with a super-hit of a trip within the first week, I was keen to see some tuna underwater. The local tuna fisheries of North Alor and Lembata has been around for decades and it's exciting to jump in the open water and swim around a FAD. On this trip, Karl, Jos and me took the chance to jump in at a rocky outcrop in the strait between Lembata and Pantar when we saw there was still some current. As we swam down finning hard to the spot where we would be sheltered, a good school of rainbow runners swarmed around us and through their shiny forms I started seeing some bigger fish shapes. As we kicked hard to get closer, it turned out that a large school of dogtooth tunas had also found the sweet spot. Hanging completely still next to them at about 30m was almost a meditational experience. I had plenty time and light to use my little Sony action camera. The bigger individuals would move their bullet-shape body ever so slightly and come hang with me. They checked me out and let me almost touch them before gliding elegantly away with a little movement of their strong tails. I did not want to leave but as I was closing in upon deco status on my computer, we slowly came up and let ourselves be swept by the current around the rocks in an exhillerating swoosh of our own bubbles mixed with surgeonfish, snappers and fuseliers. Better than the top ride in Disney World!

If you want to see big fish in Indonesia, you surely can. You will have to be comfortable with current, cause that's what brings up the nutrients that the little fish need which in turn are what the big fish likes to prey on. Taking my little cheap Sony action camera along was so worth it: the shots are sharp, the camera folds completely in my hand, and its super easy to operate. When you hit it right, it's the most exciting underwater experience you can get.

Lida Pet-Soede
October 2015

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