JAKARTA — There was no land in sight when the engine stopped and the fishing boat that Arman was captaining began to drift. Huge waves came crashing down around the Indonesian vessel — typical in the vast tropical waters between the country’s distant islands. But with no way of contacting the shore, and only a small supply of food on board, the crew had no alternative but to wait, trying not to panic, with their families left unaware of what was happening. This lasted for two days and two nights, before another boat happened to pass by and towed them to shore.
Eight years later, Arman — who like many people in Indonesia only uses his first name — recounted this episode calmly as he prepared his boat for a routine three-week long fishing trip. Times have changed. His brightly painted vessel is one of 200 now installed with POINTREK, a Vessel Monitoring System, or VMS, which uses satellite technology to track fishing vessels and provide connectivity to the crew and coordinators on land.
“Now if we have an accident we aren’t too worried because we can communicate with people on land and other vessels,” said Arman. “When our friends [the other fishermen] are at sea they can inform us when they face bad weather and rough waves … and we can give information about our coordinates.”
What is the International Partnership Programme?
The UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme — part of the U.K. government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, supporting the U.K.’s official development assistance commitment — is a £152 million ($199 million) multi-year program launched in 2015. It uses U.K. organizations' space knowledge, expertise, and capability to provide a sustainable, economic, or societal benefit to undeveloped nations and developing economies.
This technology is part of a new project, led by Inmarsat, a commercial satellite operator, Indonesia’s Ministry of Fisheries — otherwise known as the KKP — and environmental consultancy PT Hatfield, through the UK Space Agency as part of the International Partnership Programme. The overall aim of the initiative is to help improve the sustainability of Indonesia’s fisheries, and within that, help secure the livelihoods of the fishermen, reduce safety concerns through improved connectivity, and encourage less environmentally damaging fishing practices. The VMS device is also used by a patrol boat with the aim of helping prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated — or IUU — fishing.
The scale of the problem
Like billions of people around the world, Arman and his crew rely on healthy oceans for food and income. But certain fishing practices are an increasing threat to an already fragile marine ecosystem and the balance of aquatic life. The use of destructive fishing equipment — some of which is banned — fishing in protected areas, and government quotas being ignored are just some of the negative practices that can be damaging to the environment. For many coastal communities, this could have a huge impact on their economic development and food security.
This is particularly true of Indonesia, the second biggest producer of fish in the world. Made up of around 17,000 islands, a large proportion of its exclusive economic zone is water and around 6 million people rely on fishing for their livelihoods.
“Being able to engage both people at sea who observe things every day … and helping the government have better information, will improve sustainability of the fish stock and also help protect the important productive ecosystems of Indonesia.”— Lida Pet, heading the marine unit at PT Hatfield
Certain IUU activities, such as the use of environmentally unfriendly fishing gear, takes its toll on the environment and could harm the sustainability of the fish supply, said Goenaryo, director of operations for patrol vessels at the KKP, who is also referred to by his first name only. “Many people could lose their source of income when an area is damaged,” he added.
The government aims to protect the environment and the livelihoods of fishermen who depend on it by supporting more sustainable fishing practices, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water. And by installing the VMS devices on the initial fleet of 200 small fishing vessels — which all weigh between 10 and 30 gross tons — the project is better able to keep track of the vessels and their catch.
An additional action the government is taking to protect marine and fisheries resources is to increase the size of the mesh on fishing nets, Goenaryo said. The smaller the mesh, the smaller the fish that can be caught, which increases the catch, but at a cost to the marine environment: “We need to allow the fish to grow to a size that is consumable. Sustainability is the goal.”
The additional impacts of the initiative are potentially far-reaching, according to Lida Pet, heading the marine unit at PT Hatfield. Improved connectivity between vessels helps improve a range of issues, from the prevention of tragic accidents, to improving food security, and helping to protect livelihoods.
Indonesia is the second biggest producer of fish in the world where around 6 million people rely on fishing for their livelihoods. But this already fragile marine ecosystem is under threat due to the impacts of climate change, damaging fishing practices, and overfishing. As part of Devex's #Sats4SDGs series, this video explores how satellite communications could improve the sustainable management of fisheries, and help secure livelihoods in the face of some of these global challenges.
According to Arman, the biggest challenge for fishermen is bad weather and strong waves. But now the VMS device can help vessels and the coordinators on the ground provide information about weather conditions at sea.
“There are many months in the year where fishermen can't go out, or if they decide to go out they're surprised by a storm at sea,” said Pet. “The satellite communication allows them to know in advance whether an area is going to be dangerous, but also to call somebody or to get help when they're in trouble.”
This is an added incentive for the fishermen to install and use the device, Pet noted, adding that when vessels see the benefit of keeping the VMS on, compliance is improved. In the first five months of the project, 87 messages responding to emergencies had been sent and crews were saved from two vessels in trouble.
Fishermen can also be in closer contact with their families. “Now I feel more comfortable about going fishing because I can communicate [with my wife] via SMS,” said Arman.
This has also had a positive impact on his family’s life: While Arman is away, his wife Johanah and their three young children remain at their home on the east coast of the island of Lombok. They are now in touch often via SMS: He tells her about his day, the ocean, the weather, and helps quell any fears she may have; she describes her day and tells him how the children are. His is their only source of income, so it’s important that he can work safely and that their communication remains strong.
The project is still in the early stages, and a few challenges remain to improve connectivity, such as access to electricity. PT Hatfield is working in partnership with a local company to install solar panels to help prevent this from being a major issue in the future.
According to Pet, working with the users has been a big part of the learning curve: “Some of the partners of the project have been working very closely with the captains to find these technology solutions … There are Indonesian solutions being created right now, which we'll be able to test as well.”
Building community by sharing real-time information
With fishermen better able to be in contact with each other, they can also share real-time data with other fishing vessels to let them know where a potential catch is. And with increasingly depleted fish stocks, this is more important than ever.
“In the past we found it difficult: We would move from one FAD [fish aggregating device] to another FAD without finding fish. But now, even before we depart we know which location we want to go to,” said Arman.
By not having to travel so far, fishermen can potentially use less fuel, better both economically and for the environment.
The same goes for the patrol vessels. Anggoro, captain of a patrol boat that monitors the waters between Bali and Java, said that before using this technology, they would screen the area manually for illegal fishing vessels. But now he is able to know where a suspicious vessel is before setting off.
As a result, the government can save fuel and time when patrolling, said Goenaryo, as well as avoiding potentially dangerous situations.
“Patrolling at sea has such high risk,” he said, due to unpredictable weather and the possibility of coming across potentially hostile vessels. “But with the support of satellite technology, the number of hours [patrolling] can be reduced. If we already know the situation from the office, we know if we should go and patrol or not.”
However, in order to ensure that fishermen and vessel coordinators continue using the device, a reduction in the cost of use is going to be essential, he added.
Taking action for a sustainable future
Achieving SDG 14 is becoming an even bigger global priority. This has been recognized in part by the United Nations’ announcement that the years leading up to 2030 will be the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development to mobilize progress toward achieving this goal, and to boost international cooperation between scientific programs and research. And it couldn’t come soon enough: Fish stocks have already deteriorated due to overfishing, and illicit fishing — which may account for up to 26 million tons of fish catches a year, and more than 15 percent of total catches. Fish habitats are also under pressure from pollution, coastal development, and destructive fishing practices.
Given Indonesia’s prominent role in the global fishing industry, access to accurate data to inform decision-making on monitoring production and combating IUU fishing is essential. When fisheries management authorities have access to more information, they can make sure that the fish stocks are managed well, said Pet. This will help ensure they are sustainable and will be able to produce food and support livelihoods for Indonesian coastal communities in the future.
Data is important to help formulate policy, echoed Goenaryo: “As a maritime country that has a big ocean, [we need to know] the number of boats, or the production of fisheries, or whether the export value is less than neighboring countries.”
As such, the partners plan to equip more boats with the VMS device within the next phase of the project. And with more vessels and crew engaged in the project, information can be shared even more widely. This is vital for sustainability: Fishermen are the natural guardians of the sea. In addition to keeping an eye on sea levels, and the behavior or quantity of fish, they can also more easily report harmful activities related to harvesting wildlife, said Pet.
“Being able to engage both people at sea who observe things every day … and helping the government have better information, will improve sustainability of the fish stock and also help protect the important productive ecosystems of Indonesia.
Read more about the impact of satellites in development work on our Satellites for Sustainability site.