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The Bond between Natuna Fishermen and Their Fishhooks

On the waters of Natuna, there is an abundance of fishes. The huge potential has always been a target for foreign boats. On the other hand, thousands of local fishermen are used to taking only what they can from the seas. When efforts to improve their fish hauls were launched, they were nervous. The fact is that they have always used fishhooks. They have never used nets.

"We [the fishermen in Natuna] are not familiar with nets. Our tool is the fishhook. It has always been this way. I believe that I have everything I need with my fishhook," said Andi, 37, on Thursday (26/1/2017).

Under the coconut trees on the beach of Baruk Bay, Sepempang village, East Bunguran district, he was repairing his boat. The body of the 4-gross-ton boat must be replaced after six years of seafaring.

The waves of Natuna Sea, which borders the South China Sea, rolled into the beach. They broke and turned into white foam upon hitting coral reef and granites scattered all over the beach.

Natuna was gloomy. The sun had not shown up for the past few days. In the current season of northern monsoon, many local fishermen use their spare time to repair their boats. Those who own gardens turn to picking cloves for the season.

"The boat is old. It's time to replace the planks and the floor," Andi said while reparing his boat. "Next month, the boat will be ready to go out fishing with me again," he said.

Boats like Andi's are called pompong by local fishermen due to the sound the engines make: pom. pom. pom. pong.

All fishermen in the Natuna regency and in parts of the Riau Islands province use boats like Andi's, measuring between eight and 10 meters long and around three meters wide, to find fish. It has always been like this since the time of Andi's parents, who came to the island from Buton in Southwest Sulawesi.

With boats like this, thousands of fishermen in almost all of the 15 districts in Natuna fight with one another to get the largest fish haul. They can go up to 100 nautical miles or 180 kilometers out to sea.

Mackerel tunas, mackerels and snappers are the prima donna. The fishermen never use nets. Instead, they used simple fishhooks that they hold with their bare hands.

Andi said that he believed he would get all the hauls he could get daily by using only fish nets. He spent Rp 2.5 million (US$187.28) for a three-day fishing trip. The money is used to buy diesel fuel, ice blocks and logistics for the trip. With only a fishing line and hooks, he could earn more than Rp 10 million from just one fishing trip.

The last time he went out to sea, he earned Rp 10 million. "Take the Rp 2.5 million fishing costout of this, and I split the final amount with my crew members. It's a profit sharing business, so the boat owners and crew members all get the same amount. I think this is enough for me. Why must I use nets? There will be less fish in the ocean if we take it too much," said Andi, who has been a fisherman since he was 12.

The village has hosted a number of trainings and assistance programs by various levels of government, including the regency, the province and the central government. Nets were handed out but they have never been used.

"My net has never touched the sea. It's still in my home. A few of my friends use it on their gardens, to drive away monkeys who like to steal their crops," he said, laughing.

At the port in Baruk Bay, dozens of boats were docked. Due to unfriendly weather, many fishermen chose to stay on land. That day, only one boat was seen going out to sea, slowly traversing the rolling waves.

Erduan, 40, a boat owner and fisherman, said that he hoped he would catch many fish that day. No one can predict how many fish will come out during bad weather. However, Erduan had prepared everything, including a GPS, a radio and a fish finder.

He still uses fishhooks, as Natuna fishermen had never had any tradition of using fish nets in the open seas. "If we use fish nets, our boats must also be bigger and the cost will go up, too," said Erduan, who is often called Boy by his friends.

Kusnadi, 39, a fisherman in Buton Bay, North Bunguran, said that fishermen in his village used nets only to catch fish around corals in shallow seas only a few miles from land. They still use small boats.

Lack of buyers

"Our problem is the lack of buyers. There is only one fish collectors in our place. If we bring our fish hauls to the city, and there is an overflow of fish hauls there, no one wants to buy our fish. Our selling price drops significantly," Kusnadi said.

Besides, there is only one or two ice block makers nearby. Many fishermen have their own freezers to make ice blocks at their homes.

Another problem is that only a few locals can buy their fish hauls. "As a result, our prices are stagnant. There is no competition," Boy said.

Foreign buyers, who used to come by to Natuna, can no longer enter. Currently, there is still a ship from Hong Kong stopping by every two months to buy cultivated fish, including napoleon and grouper. However, the number of these ships is limited.

The Natuna regency is a frontier region. It is located closer to a number of Indonesia's neighboring countries. Its fish potential is among the largest in Indonesia. The seas of Natuna houses around 1.14 million tons of fish, 10 percent of the nationwide potential. It is unsurprising that thousands of foreign boats are targeting this area, despite many of them had been detained and sunk.

Natuna fishermen are used to take only what they need from the seas to fulfill their daily needs. They are traditional fishermen that needs to be listened to and guided, instead of being seen as mere receivers of government assistance programs. The Natuna fishermen and their fishhooks are like bottles and their caps. You cannot just separate the two without understanding the consequences.

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