Editor's note: Peter Mous and Jos Pet of People & Nature Consulting International have worked in Indonesia since 1995 with NGOs, foundations, and government agencies on fishery management and MPA development.

By Peter J. Mous (pjmous@pnc-int.com) and Jos S. Pet (jspet@pnc-int.com)

Coral reefs in Indonesia, an important service-production system, are not in good shape and the situation is deteriorating. Among the most pervasive threats to the reefs are overfishing and destructive fishing. A large part of the fishing effort on Indonesian reefs is realized by a dispersed, multi-gear, and multi-species small-scale fishery. This fishery is set in a mostly open-access, weak governance system, and behavior of individual fishers hardly affects the overall outcome of the fishery – a perfect storm of factors contributing to overfishing.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) and ecosystem-based (fishery) management (EB[F]M) have both been advocated as tools or approaches toward addressing overfishing. Both tools aim to keep ecosystems in good shape. EB(F)M is often seen as a technical process toward a holistic management plan that maximizes sustainable benefits from ecosystems in terms of fisheries, tourism, shore protection, etc. We can, however, also approach EB(F)M as a governance concept. To this end, one would need to introduce a management entity that is concerned with the status of the ecosystem as a service-production system. A critical prerequisite is that such management entity must benefit from the sustained health of the ecosystem, rather than from today's catch. Government agencies are often expected to take this role. In Indonesia, however, government agencies cannot live up to this expectation, because their bottom lines only indirectly factor in ecosystem health. Government agencies are set up to do what their constituencies expect from them in the least confrontational way, which is not always the same as what would be best for ecosystem health – hence the country's proliferation of paper parks and meaningless fishery regulations.

Some private sector entities, such as dive resorts with house reefs and pearl farms, do have a bottom line that directly depends on ecosystem health. Those that were able to secure a management mandate generally succeed in keeping "their" ecosystems in good shape. This is testimony to the power of EB(F)M.

Fisheries cooperatives as a useful tool

However, these examples cover only a small part of Indonesia's reefs, and they do not explicitly consider sustainable capture fisheries. An example of EBFM that does consider capture fisheries is Japan's coastal fishery management system. In Japan, prefecturates devolve the right to manage fisheries to fisheries cooperatives, and fishing in coastal areas is restricted to fishers who are members of these cooperatives. For the cooperative, the act of fishing by its members is just one part of its business plan, and the cooperative's overall objective is to keep the production system under its care in good shape. The Japanese system resolves open access, and it takes measures on the basis of the outcome of the entire fishery, rather than on the basis of income of individual fishers.

A management system inspired by the Japanese example holds promise for Indonesia's reef fisheries, and the Indonesian government already conducted a feasibility study on this matter. Furthermore, Indonesia's coastal zone management law of 2007 specifically allows for devolution of fishery management to non-governmental groups, including cooperatives.

The question is whether cooperatives can be trusted to do the right thing at all times. Considering the virtual absence of any effective fishery management in Indonesia's near-shore fisheries, one could argue that there is not much to lose by trusting cooperatives. Nevertheless it seems wise to put safeguards in place. This is where marine reserves come in. Provided that these reserves are designated as true no-take areas where all extractive use is prohibited, (local) government agencies could use reserves to mediate against the risk that some of the cooperatives might fail to keep "their" ecosystems in good health. These reserves would encompass reefs whose value to the public (including fishing communities) exceeds the value they might have as a fishing ground to nearby communities. By ensuring that at least 10% of reefs and other critical habitats are included in reserves, the public can be confident that reefs will survive, especially if cooperatives choose to establish additional reserves.

Provided that cooperatives are granted exclusive management rights for all near-shore fisheries within well-defined areas, we think that EB(F)M planners will find mandated cooperatives an extremely interested and very important audience – perhaps the first truly interested clients for EB(F)M-related tools. The marine reserves, a critical component in this context, would give direction to Indonesia's push toward a dramatic increase in MPAs (10 million ha by 2010, 20 million ha by 2020). That push is now getting side-tracked by a focus on multiple-use protected areas, which merely add a confusing and often ineffective layer of modified fishery management in certain areas. A focus on marine reserves rather than multiple-use MPAs, in combination with truly inspired EB(F)M for fished areas, could make all the difference for reefs and coastal people in Indonesia.