Changing the way we fish: Sustainable fisheries in the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion
 
 
 

Promoting a mechanism that releases turtles from trawl fishing nets, and a sustainable fisheries project that is the first to address the transboundary management small pelagic fisheries management in this marine product-dependent region—these are just two of the milestones that are changing the way people are fishing for their food in the Sulu Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME), home to the world’s richest marine biodiversity.Some one million tons of fish—coastal reef fishes, large and small pelagics, and crustaceans, a wide array of commercially important marine invertebrates—are landed every year in this area, using methods ranging from gill nets and hook-and-line to large commercial trawlers and purse seiners. These one million square kilometers of land and sea support 40 million people and a billion-dollar tourism industry, and is also the apex of the Coral Triangle, the larger marine biodiversity hotspot with the highest number of coral species on earth.

In 2006, the three countries of the SSME—Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines established a Tri-National Committee to govern the ecoregion, and under which three subcommittees were assigned to respectively address threatened, charismatic, and migratory species; marine protected areas (MPA) and network; and fisheries. The promotion of the Turtle Exclusion Device (TED) and the establishment of the Sulu-Celebes Sea Sustainable Fisheries Management Project were carried out under the aegis of the Sustainable Fisheries Subcommittee.

The TED is a surprisingly simple solution—an escape hatch for an animal that was not meant to be in the net. In April 2009, on a trip organized by the Kota Kinabalu-based Marine Research Foundation (MRF) and the Department of Fisheries-Sabah and supported by Conservation International through the Walton Foundation-funded Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape Project, representatives of Malaysia’s trawl fishing community and Sabah’s Department of Fisheries spent five days in Pascagoula, Louisiana in the United States to learn more about the use of TEDs in trawler fishing, and to bash any misconceptions or fears that the device will reduce fish catch, and consequently, income. Contrary to belief, aside from sparing turtles, TEDs may actually improve catch and reduce fuel consumption, thanks to the reduced weight to be pulled after larger animals are released.

“The great thing about TEDs is that they are actually better for fishers than they are for saving wildlife - they save fuel, they improve the quality of the catch, and they minimise damage to a large portion of the net. All of this makes fishing with TEDs more productive, not less, and saves endangered wildlife in the meantime,” said Dr. Nick Pilcher, MRF Executive Director. THE Sulu-Celebes Sea Sustainable Fisheries Management Project was initiated in 2009 and will run until 2014, and is the first trinational and collaborative project in the SSME to be funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The project’s goal is the development of ecologically and economically sustainable marine fisheries, for the benefit of the people who directly depend on these fisheries for survival, as well as the larger community that enjoys the ecosystem services provided by this region. This is to be accomplished through the improvement of fisheries and habitats, and through integrated, collaborative, and participatory management on all levels, from the local to the regional.

Because it precisely addresses the issue of small pelagic fisheries management, the project aligns perfectly with conservation goals for the region. First, it is consistent with the first objective of the Action Plan of the Subcommittee on Sustainable Fisheries, which is to collaborate to develop a harmonized fisheries management regime for tunas and small pelagics such as sardines, mackerel, round scads, anchovies, and others. Second, the Action Plan itself is consistent with the Coral Triangle Initiative’s Goal No. 2, the full application of the ecosystem approach to the management of fisheries and other marine resources.

It is also a testament to the success of the SSME governance in developing a project and harnessing both internal and external resources for implementation—a model that can be replicated in the SSME management’s two other working subcommittees.

“Small pelagics have a bigger impact on small-scale fishers and local communities,” says Rooney Biusing, Deputy Director of Sabah’s Department of Fisheries, “because they are important as livelihood and food source. The aim is to recover small pelagics with participation of communities in resource management.”

The three subcommittees’ Action Plans, which are articulations of the broader SSME Ecoregion Conservation Plan developed in 2003, were launched at the East Asian Seas (EAS) Congress in Manila in 2009. They are now integrated into the SSME Comprehensive Action Plans, which will outline priority projects and possible sources of funding.

“Our greatest achievement so far in the Fisheries Subcommittee,” declared the Department of Fisheries-Sabah (under the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Industry of Malaysia) in a statement, “is that we have now a functional international cooperation among Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in trying to cooperatively better manage our fisheries resources, as well as achieving biodiversity conservation goals in the SSME.”