Boat-building boom threatens Aceh fisheries

Oversupply of small boats in the wake of the tsunami could result in overfishing.

Antonio Munoz Martin looks across the harbor of this once vibrant fishing port and sees the potential dangers of charity.

All along the coast, aid groups are building small boats to replace a fishing fleet that was largely destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami. But they're building too many, experts say, and that could lead to overfishing and the destruction of Aceh's best hope for sustainable development: its fishing industry.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a wing of the United Nations, 4,700 boats were destroyed during the tsunami. To date, 4,400 have been rebuilt and another 1,500 are on the way.

More worrisome than the number is the kind of boat being built, says Mr. Martin, a marine rehabilitation specialist for the Belgian Red Cross. Since many large offshore fishing trawlers were lost, the Red Cross is indeed building large boats. But most of the aid community is focusing on the smaller boats that fish shallow breeding grounds, potentially depleting stocks before they have a chance to rebuild.

"The trend, if all the boats pledged are built, is to have 25 percent more boats than existed before the tsunami," says Martin, himself a former commercial fisherman. "The fishing industry here needs money - clearly - and the easiest thing to do is build small boats. The only thing we ask is that we do not make more boats than existed before. Otherwise, we will reduce the stock of fish."

It's a debate that pits two cherished ideals of the aid community against each other: community-driven development on one hand vs. ecologically sustainable development on the other. The debate is particularly sharp in a disaster that has attracted more aid contributions than any other disaster in history, and in Indonesia and other affected nations there is a growing concern that money spent with good intentions could have bad consequences.

Nowhere is this more true than in efforts to restore the livelihoods of the Indian Ocean fishing industry, with more aid money creating more fishing boats and fishermen than existed before. In Sri Lanka, for example, there were 6,886 traditional fishing boats lost to the tsunami; 9,913 have been pledged to "replace" them and 6,900 have already been built.

"This is demand driven, and the demand is for small boats," says Virgil Grandfield, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Banda Aceh. "It's not that there's too much money; but the money needs to be spent wisely, and if there's room for improvement, if we're doing the wrong thing, we need to change and we need to tell the world."

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the Red Cross's report is viewed as nonsense by many of Banda's fishermen. At the fish market, where tons of yellowfin tuna, sardines, and shark are sold, most fishermen say there are plenty of fish to generate income for Aceh's recovery.

"I'm catching more fish than I did before the tsunami," says Abdul Karim, captain of a large offshore trawler. "It all depends on what God wants to give to each person, but the important thing is that we should try our best."

Irman Yahya, captain of a fishing trawler, says the number of fish he catches is still quite good. The problem, he says, is rubble from Banda tearing his boat's nets. "I don't think we'll have a problem of overfishing," he says. "The boats that the aid groups are giving out are small boats, and the people who are getting them are not real fishermen. The [fishermen] who go out to sea are in boats like mine, and I don't think aid groups give those ones away."

The problem, says Indonesian government recovery official Sudirman Said, is that aid often does not reach the most needy, since "aid groups tend to go to the most accessible regions to work," and neglect harder to reach areas. In addition, some groups - in an effort to build boats quickly - built boats of unseasoned wood that eventually sank.

"We do need assistance to help us decide how many big boats are needed," says Mr. Said, spokesman for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias (called by its Indonesian acronym BRR). "If they bring really big boats instead of consulting with us, and they go to fishing areas that we cannot control, then we might have problems" with overfishing.

But the Red Cross's Martin says there are already signs of overfishing. Last March the average size of a yellowfin tuna was about 65 to 70 centimeters. Today it's 50 to 55 centimeters.

It was signs like this that caused Martin to cancel a Belgian Red Cross project to build dozens of small crafts, and instead to build a smaller number of large boats to be owned and run by collectives of fishermen. He also says that aid groups should create fish canneries and other onshore industries to generate income that keeps the value of Aceh's product in the province.

There are times, Martin says, when aid groups should not give people what they ask for, but what they need. "In Pidie [a town on Aceh's eastern coast], there are fishermen who are receiving small boats with global positioning systems and lights and double motors, which they never had before," he says. "They don't know how to use it, so they sell it to somebody else."

"We need to be sure it's for a real need before we provide them with boats," he says. He points at a 15-foot craft moored in the bay. "It's easy to build one of those in four weeks." He gives a shrug. "But I think it's cruel."

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