marine fisheries in Southeast Asia

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III. Trawling

Mechanized trawling requires a vessel that is powerful enough to tow a large net through the water at a reasonable speed (typically 2-4 knots) and therefore the development of trawling did not generally take place until after the development of steam-powered vessels in the latter part of the nineteenth century, although a limited amount of beam trawling using sail-powered vessels was undertaken, including that by Japanese fishers in Manila Bay. It was at this time that the “first industrialization” of fisheries began in the British Isles. At first, steam-powered vessels were used to tow fishing boats out to fishing grounds and take catches to markets, but later the power of steam engines was harnessed to drive fishing boats and haul in nets. The most important fishing gear at this time was the trawl net, which fishers employed to capture the abundant demersal populations of the English channel and then of the North Sea. As the fishery expanded the beam trawl, which is kept open by a beam at the entrance to the net, was quickly replaced by the otter trawl, which is kept open by the flow of water over the otter boards (or “doors”) on the tow lines as the boat pulls the net through the water. In the late 1800s British trawlers moved further and further into the North Sea to maintain their catches, but fishing companies made great profits, as the income from the sale of fish to the rapidly growing market far outweighed the cost of sailing to more distant fishing grounds.

The profitability of steam trawlers and their ability to land large amounts of food to feed the growing urban populations of Europe planted the idea in the minds of a few entrepreneurs and officials that trawling might prove just as successful in the Southeast Asian waters. The first person to consider the possibility of capturing demersal fish in Southeast Asian waters by means of a trawler was apparently a Captain Eddie, the captain of a steamship. During discussions with British officials in 1894 Captain Eddie proposed that he be granted a monopoly on trawling in the waters around Penang and off the coasts of Perak and Selangor for two to four years and that he would pay the government a certain sum for the privilege. Eddie had experimented with a trawl net and had apparently had very good results, but he dumped his catch before returning to port and said he would not reveal where he had fished or what he had caught or order a steam trawler from England until the Government agreed to his request. The areas for which he had requested to be granted a monopoly had great potential for trawl fishing, but because they had so little information to go on and they were in any case reluctant to grant a monopoly, officials refused Eddie’s request and no one took up his idea of trawling in this area for many years.

The design of trawl nets in Southeast Asia may have some precedence in the fixed nets, known as payang, that were used off the coasts of Java and Madura and the Malay Peninsula in the nineteenth century to catch small and medium-sized pelagic fish. These nets were similar in design to a trawl net, with wings and a “cod end” and the upper part of the net supported by floats and the lower edge secured with weights. Similarly, fishers in the Philippines used a pair-trawl type net design, locally known as sapyaw, to also catch pelagic species. These nets, however, were not towed nets but fixed or lift nets. Therefore, perhaps their greatest importance in the development of trawling that was to come in the future was to provide the net making skills and familiar net patterns for manufacturing towed trawl nets.

The first attempt in the region at surveying demersal fish stocks and testing demersal trawling as a method of capture was made in 1907 when the Netherlands Indies Government refitted a steam barge, the Gier, to undertake surveys in the Java Sea and nearby areas using a small otter trawl. The trials that were undertaken were hampered by operational difficulties such as the net often becoming stuck in the soft mud and large cup sponges clogging the net. Despite these difficulties, some areas with good potential were identified by the end of the trials in 1911 and the conclusions of the survey were generally optimistic. In the report to the Government, which recommended a more commercially-orientated survey, it was emphasized that the Gier was not designed as a trawler since it used a small net and the vessel concentrated on surveying a number of areas rather than concentrating on the areas that were found to have high fish abundance. Despite these recommendations, no follow-up surveys were undertaken and, in fact, the Government actually reduced its commitment to fisheries surveys and research.

Other similar trawl surveys were being undertaken at about the same time, including the Golden Crown, which surveyed the Arakan coast of Burma in 1908-09 and later, under new ownership, surveyed the waters off the Straits Settlements, the Albatross, a steam beam trawler belonging to the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, which surveyed demersal resources in the Philippines in 1907-08 and the steam trawler Tongkol, which surveyed possible trawling grounds in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea in 1926-27. None of these surveys proved encouraging enough for further surveys or commercialization to be undertaken although, interestingly, all suggested that the use of otter trawls and other “modern” fishing methods operated from small motor trawlers in inshore areas and landing on a daily basis may have some potential rather than the larger, European-type trawlers in offshore areas. This recommendation had a cultural and commercial focus as well as being a response to the abundance of fish found. Local markets preferred their fish fresh rather than frozen and prices in local markets were not high, which made it difficult to operate large trawlers profitably.

As noted earlier, Japanese fishers had been operating beam trawls from sail-powered vessels in Manila Bay since about 1900 and, in the late 1920s, this fishery began to expand as the fishing companies operating there introduced diesel-powered vessels. By the early 1930s, virtually all of the beam trawlers had diesel engines and the trawlers had extended their operations well beyond Manila Bay. This expansion of activities prompted one of the first suggestions that trawling was adversely affecting other fisheries when Filipino fishers in San Miguel Bay complained to the President of the Philippines that the Japanese trawlers were reducing fish stocks, a claim that was supported by subsequent research. However, trawling activities in San Miguel Bay continued and, by 1980, 89 trawlers of various sizes were operating there. However, by this time, demersal stocks in the area, and other trawl grounds in the Philippines, had been depleted (in 1980, estimates of trawlable biomass in San Miguel Bay were only 1600 tonnes, about 20 percent of what the estimate was in 1948) and trawl operations had become economically marginal. No further significant growth of the industrial trawl fishery therefore occurred although trawling from dugouts, using very small nets, expanded gradually from the 1950s onwards and helped in maintaining a small trawl fishery for demersal species in the Philippines, which continues today.

Japanese fishing companies were also active in developing offshore pair- and otter-trawl fisheries in the 1930s in other areas of Southeast Asia, particularly in the waters around Taiwan, the South China Sea and off the coast of Viet Nam, including the Gulf of Tonkin where between 1935 and 1937 these trawlers caught an average of 11000 tonnes per year, mainly of species such as yellowback bream (Taius tumifrons) and other bream species. In addition, Japanese trawlers operated as far south as Sarawak and were also based in Singapore, apparently fishing in areas as far south as the northwest coast of Australia.

In contrast to most other fishing activities in the region at the time, these Japanese trawlers did not land their catches in the countries where they were taken but, rather, landed the frozen product to markets in Japan and Taiwan. These Japanese trawlers, together with Japanese operations in the Philippines constituted, therefore, the main trawling activities in Southeast Asia by the late 1930s since none of the surveys by European Governments or entrepreneurs had resulted in a viable trawl fishery using European-type trawlers.

Following the Second World War, demersal fish landings in the region recovered quickly to pre-war levels, despite the problems of the limited supply of vessels, fishing gear and other equipment. By 1950, demersal fish landings had reached around 166000 tonnes (in addition to some 43000 tonnes of shrimp) of which perhaps half came from trawling activities. These landings then increased rapidly, reaching about 1.7 million tonnes by 2002 in addition to about 600000 tonnes of shrimp. Although data on landings by fishing methods has not been consistently collected in the region, by far the majority of this increase in demersal landings has come from the expansion of trawling activities for demersal fish species, with the rate of increase having accelerated a little in the period after 1990 (Figure 3).

The history of industrial
marine fisheries in
Southeast Asia

Figure 3. Landings of demersal marine fish and shrimp species in Southeast
Asian countries, 1950-2002 (source: FAO Fisheries Statistics)

This increase in landings from trawling activities resulted from a number of developments in different countries. Japanese pair-trawling expertise was used to successfully develop both fish and shrimp trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand in 1959 and, in 1961, a joint German-Thai Government initiative to introduce small-scale, inshore trawling in Thailand was hugely successful with the number of trawlers operating in Thailand increasing from 99 in 1960 to 2700 in 1966. Catches from these vessels correspondingly increased from around 59 000 to 36 000 tonnes (representing about 57 percent of total Thai landings and about 64 percent of total regional demersal landings) during the same period. Interestingly, these large increases in landings, particularly for species not suitable for human consumption (which represented about 40 percent of total trawl landings), helped support and develop ancillary industries such as pelletized feed and duck production. Without a market for these so called “trash” fish, the profitability of this fledgling industry would have been a lot less than it otherwise was.

As the number of trawl vessels in the Gulf of Thailand increased rapidly and catch rates (and profits) declined, the fleet looked for other opportunities. Thai trawlers moved further afield and, by 1974, had begun fishing on the west coast of Viet Nam, Burma, Sarawak, the east coast of Malaysia and Java. The number of Thai-registered trawlers continued to grow with the exploitation of these new fishing grounds and, by 1977, had reached 6300 with landings from these vessels totalling some 1.1 million tonnes.

The impact in the region of trawling by Thai vessels was profound. In Malaysia, despite a government rejection in 1958 of trawling as a potential direction for the fishing industry, trawling accounted for 48 percent of total landings of 440000 tonnes by 1974. The introduction of inshore trawling as a fishing method in the Straits of Malacca occurred in the early 1960s and was a direct result of the development and success of the Thai trawl industry although it is uncertain whether the initial impetus was provided by Thai trawlers operating in Malay waters or Malay operators visiting Thailand to learn trawling. As a result of this osmosis, the techniques and net design for otter trawling used in the Straits of Malacca was identical to that developed by the German-Thai fisheries project and used by the Thai vessels. The introduction of trawling to the Straits of Malacca was, however, fraught with conflict and violence with other fishers, particularly since the trawlers essentially ignored a ban on trawling operations within 12 miles of the coast and in waters less than 15 fathoms.

As the industry followed the development pattern of the Thai trawl industry, and the fishery was essentially unregulated, the number of vessels increased rapidly and catch rates declined. On the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, catch rates fell from 520 to 160 kg/hour between 1970 and 1981 while in the northern part of the Straits of Malacca, catch rates fell from 130 to 55 kg/hour during the same period. In both areas, Thai trawlers as well as Malay vessels contributed to the depletion of fish populations.

The success of the initial development of trawling in the Straits of Malacca prompted the development in 1966, by Chinese fishers based in Bagan Si Api Api, of a similar trawl fishery on the western shores of the Straits, in Indonesia. With supporting government investment incentives, the industry expanded rapidly, driven by investment by Japanese fishing companies and, from the start, targeted shrimp for the Japanese market (see Section V below) although significant quantities of demersal fish were also taken. However, unlike Thailand, there was not an immediate market for this “trash” fish and much of it was dumped at sea after sorting out the shrimp and valuable edible fish species. In 1969, the Government stipulated that foreign companies operating in the industry had to enter into a joint venture arrangement with local companies and, again, it was the Japanese companies that provided the capital for these joint ventures with local companies providing labour, capital and political connections. This development of a large trawl industry in Indonesia had profoundly transformed the Indonesian fishing industry in a few years.

Supporting infrastructure of freezing and cold storage facilities, harbours etc. followed the development of the fishery and, by the end of 1976, foreign investment in the Indonesian shrimp fishery totalled US$46 million with 51 cold storage facilities being operational. Exports of frozen shrimp increased from around 5600 tonnes in 1969 to over 35000 tonnes in 1979.

However, already by 1970-71, trawlers were having to move to new fishing grounds as catch rates declined in areas such as the Straits of Malacca. In 1971, 50 trawlers moved from Sumatra to the north coast of Java because of dwindling catch rates; trawlers moved for the first time to the south coast of Irian Jaya and a Japanese company moved its entire operations to east Kalimantan. Soon, however, these new areas also experienced dwindling catch rates: catch rates in the Arafura Sea approximately halved between 1973 and 1976, and total landings decreased in the area even though the number of trawlers had increased by over 30 percent. In 1980, it was reported that the size of shrimp in the Straits of Malacca, south and east Kalimantan, Cilacap and the Arafura Sea “had decreased tremendously”. By the late 1970s, there were no more new areas to which the fleet could move and so, after reaching a peak of some 132000 tonnes in 1979, total landings of shrimp from Indonesia began to decline, partly a result of a ban on large trawlers implemented in 1980/81 (see below). It was to be another decade before Indonesian shrimp landings again reached that level of production.

Impacts of the trawl fishery were also felt in the declining abundance of demersal fish species in the areas where trawlers operated (particularly the Arafura Sea), made even more critical by the common habit of dumping “trash” fish at sea rather than landing and utilizing them, as was the case in Thailand. This led to several violent clashes between traditional fishers and trawlers and, between 1964 and 1976, according to official records, 62 vessels were sunk and 34 fishers killed in clashes between trawlers and inshore fishers.

In 1980, in response to these increasingly violent clashes and continuing complaints from inshore fishers, industrialized trawling was banned in all waters surrounding Java and Bali and in 1981 this ban was extended to the waters surrounding Sumatra. Trawling was still permitted in other areas, including the Arafura Sea where a requirement for the installation of by-catch reduction devices was also implemented, although probably not effectively enforced. Both shrimp and fish stocks recovered quickly as a result of the ban (the density of demersal fish in the Straits of Malacca, for example, more than doubled from 1.2 tonnes/km2 to 3 tonnes//km2 between 1983 and 1985) and, with government assistance, small-scale fishers moved to fill the void left by the trawlers. In some areas, the number of small motorized vessels more than doubled in the early 1980s and total shrimp landings rebounded to pre-1980 levels by the late 1980s.

However, the ban on industrialized trawling was, like regulations controlling mesh sizes etc. in areas such as the Arafura Sea, never fully effective and, by the early 1990s, there was a resurgence of trawling, with many vessels operating illegally and also many being “licensed” by local authorities despite the supposed ban. In 1996, small-scale fishers in Jakarta claimed that more than 200 industrialized trawlers were operating within a kilometre of the coast and, inevitably, violent clashes between small-scale fishers and trawlers once again became common. By the mid-to-late 1990s, the trawl ban had ceased to be effective (except in areas where small-scale fishers were able to enforce it themselves by violence) and landings of shrimp and demersal fish species again increased, reaching over 280000 tonnes by 2002.

In other countries of the region, as well as Indonesia, the declaration of national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) during the 1980s had a profound impact on the development of trawling activities in the region. Much of the waters that had previously been international waters (and in which Thai trawlers in particular had operated) now came under the jurisdiction of one or other of the countries of the region. The largest EEZs were those of the archipelago states of Indonesia and the Philippines. According to UNCLOS, the fishing fleets of those countries which had traditionally fished in the EEZ of another country should continue to be given access to those waters so long as the coastal state lacked the capacity to exploit the fisheries resources within its EEZ.

This prompted a flurry of development of national fishing industries and the setting of conditions for foreign access to demersal resources, particularly in those states such as Indonesia which had a huge EEZ, and terms of access for foreign fishing vessels became a useful bargaining chip in other diplomatic negotiations. These conditions often included a requirement to land the catch in the coastal state (which impacted the reporting of national landings statistics), employment of local labour and payment of access fees. However, in Indonesia, the enforcement of the conditions of foreign vessel access was again difficult as local authorities issued “permits” and lacked the required resources such as patrol vessels to effectively monitor foreign fishing activity.

Of the countries in the region, it was the Thai trawlers that had the capacity to fish extensively in other countries’ EEZs and they continued to do this, often illegally, following the declaration of EEZs. Thai vessels operating within the EEZ of other countries often simply entered the EEZ without permission to seek fish. This led to numerous arrests of Thai trawlers in Viet Nam, Burma, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia but these arrests were only a tiny proportion of the Thai fleet which, in any case, had invested in faster vessels, detection equipment and weapons so as to avoid arrest. Many violent clashes occurred between national fishers and Thai trawlers in Burma, Viet Nam, Indonesia and other countries through the 1980s and 1990s in response to these illegal activities. Catches were most often shipped directly to Thailand or other markets by transport vessels and were not landed in the coastal state.

During the late 1990s, Thailand began to enter into joint venture arrangements with a few countries to allow their fleet to operate legally in other countries’ EEZs. Such arrangements were entered into with Indonesia and Myanmar within the region and with other countries around the Indian Ocean rim. However, illegal fishing in foreign waters continued to be common and was exacerbated by the inability of Thai authorities to control the number of vessels in its own national waters, thereby providing incentives for these vessels to look further afield for their catches.

Despite early attempts at developing a trawl industry in the first few decades of the twentieth century, the history of industrialized trawling in Southeast Asia has therefore been one of unregulated, sequential expansion beginning initially with the development of the Thai trawl industry in the early 1960s. The successful expansion of the Thai trawlers to other areas within the region prompted parallel industrial-scale developments in other countries, most notably Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula although this expansion has been characterized by often violent conflicts with small-scale fishers in a number of areas. Throughout its development, landings of demersal fish and shrimp from industrial trawling activities have been dominated by three countries: Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, with these countries contributing 73 percent of total regional shrimp landings in 2002 and 80 percent of total regional demersal fish landings (FAO, 2004).

As Butcher (2004) notes, the development of trawling in the region occurred by the sequential exploitation of new areas with vessels maintaining and increasing landings by moving to new areas as stocks were depleted. Such sequential depletion has also impacted significantly on traditional fishers, often resulting in violent clashes as demersal stocks have, in many areas, been effectively transferred from small-scale fishers to the industrial trawl fleet. Attempts at regulating and controlling this industrial trawl development, where it occurred, were universally weak and ineffective.

In the 1970s, with the declaration by most countries of Exclusive Economic Zones through the UNCLOS process, the existing trawler fleet (which was mainly of Thai vessels) continued to operate and expand into other countries’ EEZs while several national governments looked at ways of developing their own national fleets. With Thai authorities unable to control the number of vessels in their own waters, the Thai fleet has not only continued to expand but has also looked for opportunities beyond their own waters. This has led to a major issue of illegal fishing activities in many countries of the region, which has proved difficult to control.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this essentially unregulated development of industrial trawling in the region, landings of demersal fish and shrimp species have increased dramatically and are currently in excess of 1.7 million tonnes of demersal fish and 600 000 tonnes of shrimp (Figure 3). Although detailed statistics are often not available, most of the increases in these shrimp and demersal fish landings have come from the activities of industrial trawling, except in the Philippines where small-scale fisheries dominate and where demersal fish and shrimp landings have only increased marginally over the past three decades. In 1950, prior to the development of industrial trawling, the Philippines was the major contributor to demersal fish landings in the region, accounting for 76 percent of total regional demersal fish landings. By 2002, its contribution had shrunk to less than 20 percent (FAO, 2004).

With no more new fishing areas for the trawlers to exploit, the challenge for the region for the future is to not only bring illegal fishing under control but, in parallel with this, to develop and implement strategies that will limit the region’s industrial trawl fleet to levels which will ensure long-term, sustainable demersal resources.

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