marine fisheries in Southeast Asia

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VII. Tuna longlining, poling and purse seining

As noted in Section IV above, purse seining activities in the region, although initially targeting small pelagic species, had, by the early 1980s, begun to target various tuna species and also expanded their operations to the eastern part of Indonesia, the coasts of Irian Jaya and further afield. Initially, Japanese purse seine vessels led this expansion although vessels from the Philippines and Indonesia quickly followed.

The taking of tuna in the area, however, was a traditional fishery practice in many countries. In the nineteenth century, trawl-shaped nets (locally called payang), trolling using lures made from feathers and longlining (locally called rawai) were all common fishing methods in the western islands area of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaya (Butcher, 2004) and took not only small tuna species but also other large pelagics and, in the case of longlining, demersal species such as sharks and rays. In the Mollucas, pole-and-line fishing for skipjack tuna was also a common fishing method and involved the use of live bait and barbless hooks with a piece of feather as a lure. By the early 1900s, Japanese fishing vessels had begun fishing in a number of countries of Southeast Asia. Japanese trollers, driftnetters and muro ami (a net for specifically taking fusiliers, family Caesionidae) fishers had established themselves in Singapore by the 1920s and, in the 1930s were taking, in addition to fusiliers, shad, small sharks and other species, both skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) and bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus) by trolling. Although the catches of these species were not large (about 100 tonnes were landed in 1932), the development is significant in that it introduced deepwater trolling for these species to the region.

The Japanese were also active in developing the pole-and-line fishery for skipjack tuna (although, as noted above, there was a traditional pole-and-line fishery for tuna in the Mollucas), which was mainly caught for the Japanese market and formed part of a broader skipjack pole-and-line fishery that extended beyond Southeast Asia into the Pacific coast of Japan and the western Pacific Ocean. Beginning in about 1910 the Japanese started developing bases in the region, and by the 1930s they had them established in a number of countries including at Ambon, Manado, Ternato, Davao, Zamboanga, Si Amil Island and Aertembaga. These bases were used as receiving, processing and exporting depots and produced not only dried tuna stick (known to the Japanese as kasuobushi) but also canned product. The pole-and-line technique used was similar to that used in the Mollucas and involved bamboo poles, live bait and barbless hooks. However, the Japanese also introduced the technique of spraying water on the sea surface, giving the illusion of even more small fish.

While accurate statistics on this fishery are scarce, one company based at Zamboanga landed 1100 tonnes of skipjack and 260 tonnes of immature yellowfin tuna in 1938, with the fleet fishing over a wide area that included the Sulu Sea, Moro Gulf, Celebes Sea and the Davao Gulf. The pole-and-line fishery seems to have been favourably received and, as one researcher in the Philippines commented in 1940 (quoted by Butcher, 2004, p.158), the pole-and-line fishery is “not conducive to depleting the tuna fishing grounds” although the use of purse seines for catching tuna “should be discouraged as much as possible in Philippines tuna grounds since the purse seine was far less selective in what it caught than the pole and line”.

During this period, the Japanese were also exploring the development of a deep water longline fishery for tuna and, by 1932, had factory ships operating in Sumatran waters that processed and canned yellowfin tuna on board for the Japanese market. By 1941, the Japanese had conducted longlining activities in the South China, Sulu, Celebes, Mollucas and Banda Seas as well as the Pacific Ocean between New Guinea and Mindanao and the Indian Ocean.

In the year after the Second World War, Japanese activity in tuna fishing in Southeast Asia declined dramatically. However, the potential of tuna stocks in the region was well recognized. In 1950, in recognition of the virtually unexploited status of tuna in the Philippines, a company began operating longliners that had been brought from Taiwan. However, the venture failed. By 1970, however, companies that operated freezing and processing plants began supplying fishers with small vessels and hand troll lines to take large yellowfin tuna for export to Japan. By the late 1970s, the fishers based at General Santos City were landing about 40 tonnes of yellowfin tuna per day.

A major development in the tuna fishery in the Philippines came in 1975 with the development of a fish aggregating device, locally known as a payaw. This floating fish lure was used by both the purse seiners (described in Section IV) who targeted skipjack and juvenile yellowfin tuna and by the hand-line fishers who targeted large yellowfin and bigeye tuna. This combination of purse seine and hand-line catches brought about a spectacular increase in tuna catches in the Philippines, which rose from 23000 tonnes in 1973 to 220000 tonnes in 1977.

By the early 1950s, however, Japanese vessels had begun to return to longlining and pole-and-line fishing for tuna, including in waters around Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The catching vessels were supported by mother ships, taking their catch directly back to Japan. The nature of this fishery meant that landings statistics for tuna in the region are certainly underestimated with the extent of underestimation being related to the extent of this type of foreign fishing.

The Japanese longliners involved with mothership operations varied in size from 20-50 tonnes to over 200 tonnes but, according to a 1963 report, were typically 100-200 GRT3. These longliners targeted yellowfin tuna but also took significant quantities of bigeye tuna and operated initially in the western areas of the Banda, Celebes and Mollucas Seas (which were international waters in the 1950s) but quickly spread their operations westwards into the Indian Ocean. In 1968, and in response to Indonesia’s territorial seas claims, Indonesia and Japan signed the Banda Sea Agreement which provided access for Japanese tuna longliners to areas of the Banda Sea and to Indonesian ports for payment of an annual fee. This Agreement lasted until 1975, when the Indonesian Government attempted to establish its own tuna longlining company, Perikan Samodra Besar (PSB), although this company then entered into a new agreement with the Japanese to allow continued access to the tuna fishing areas in the Banda Sea, but under much stricter conditions than before.

With a move away from canned tuna and towards sashimi product in the 1970s, the Japanese longline fleet in Southeast Asia declined as longliners began targeting species such as southern bluefin tuna in the Indian Ocean and the vessels remaining in Southeast Asia shifted their emphasis away from yellowfin to species that were more suitable for sashimi product, such as bigeye tuna. In the Banda Sea area, yellowfin tuna comprised about 75 percent of total tuna catches in 1974, but by 1980 bigeye tuna made up 50-75 percent of the catch. The better targeting of bigeye tuna was achieved by changing the method of longlining from surface to deep longlines, set at 100-300 m below the surface. This development of “deep longlining” therefore extended the area available for fishing deeper into the water column and led to continued expansion of landings throughout the region during the 1980s.

The Japanese pole-and-line fishery has always been more important in the areas around the Philippines and the eastern seas of Southeast Asia than around the western areas and, in 1970, their main area of operation was the Philippines and the northern tip of Borneo. Because of their reliance on live, small baitfish (which are generally found in inshore waters), the pole-and-line vessels are not able to fish in areas remote from land. This reliance on land-based operations also meant that Japanese pole-and-line vessels, unlike purse seine vessels or longliners, could not operate without close relationships with the coastal states and therefore, Japanese operations in places like the eastern areas of Indonesia and the Philippines were more often under joint-venture arrangements.

However, by the mid-to-late 1970s, Japan was taking steps to replace its pole-and-line vessels with purse seiners, which were proving a much more efficient and profitable method of taking tuna. This also coincided with the Japanese longliners move from canned product to sashimi product (and the consequent shift in targeted species) and increased fishing by Japanese vessels in the Indian Ocean. These two developments resulted in an overall decline of Japanese tuna fishing activity in Southeast Asian waters and allowed the fledgling pole-and-line and longline industries in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines to further develop. As noted above, purse seining and trolling, using the payaw fish aggregating device, developed rapidly in the Philippines after 1975 and by 1980 in Indonesia the PSB company, established in 1975, was operating seventeen 111 GRT4 tuna longline vessels off Bali and Sumatra although they had reverted to targeting yellowfin tuna by sub-surface longlines rather than bigeye tuna with deep longlines. Three pole-and-line tuna companies were also formed and operated 29 vessels off Irian Jaya (in areas where the Japanese had formally fished) by the early 1980s. At that time, the Government of Indonesia was anxious to support a local tuna industry and supported these, and other, tuna longlining and pole-and-line companies financially, enabling them to expand their operations during the 1990s.

In 2002, Indonesia and the Philippines were the dominant tuna fishing nations in the region, accounting for more than 85 percent of regional tuna landings (Figure 4). While the majority of these came from purse seining (see Section IV above), trolling, pole-and-line and longline vessels were major contributors to tuna landings, and were particularly important in the small-scale fisheries of both countries. The statistics on tuna landings for the region shown in Figure 4 are, however, highly questionable because of the nature of the tuna industry and the nature of the national reporting systems. For example, tuna taken in the Philippines by Japanese vessels and landed in Japan are unlikely to appear in the national statistics of the Philippines and, likewise, tuna taken by Thai vessels in Indonesia are likely to appear in the national statistics of Thailand, not Indonesia. These issues need to be taken into account when considering tuna landing and production statistics for the region, although the overall upward trend in landings for the region may not be influenced as much by these factors.

The history of industrial
marine fisheries in
Southeast Asia

Figure 4. Landings of tuna (all species) by all methods
by country in Southeast Asia, 1950–2002

3 Butcher (2004) notes that the original sources for this information quote both “tons” and Gross Tonnage (GT) for the size of vessels. It is presumed that “tons” refers to displacement tonnage and that GT refers to the vessel’s capacity, including the area above the top deck. This is different to, and usually greater than, GRT which refers to the vessel’s capacity, excluding the area above the top deck. No conversion to a standardized unit of measurement of vessel size has been attempted, or is possible without knowing the detailed design of the vessels.

4 GRT measurements were used in the original report quoted by Butcher (2004). See footnote 3 regarding units of measurement for fishing vessel capacity.

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