Thick clouds veiled the sky and drizzle was just starting to come down when the Kumbe-Merauke crossing sign came into view. Kumbe is one of the coastal villages in south-eastern Merauke, Papua. It takes 2-3 hours to get there from Merauke sub-district, passing through damaged and potholed village roads – a journey which is challenging, but no less enjoyable. When we arrived, the ship was already waiting at the dock. It was able to carry up to nine people, along with a motorbike. With mangroves unfolding along the coast and waves rippling gently towards our boat, the trip felt short.

The atmosphere in the village was relatively quiet when we arrived. Only a few people were waiting for the ship to Merauke, along with a few kids walking home from school. Livelihoods of the Kumbe villagers are primarily dependent on fishing and marine resources, which means most people are out at sea from the break of day onwards. The majority of fishermen in Kumbe focus on catching snapper, and they might go fishing for weeks or even months at a time, relying on the supplies they brought with them from the land.

Image Credit: UNDP Indonesia for the ATSEA-2 Project

Kumbe village is also known as a vessel manufacturing village, which is indicated by the number of shipbuilders we met along the way. Their customers not only came from Kumbe, but also from various other regions in Merauke. Different kinds of vessels can be found here, including traditional wooden ships and 30 GT vessels (although we did not find more than 30 GT vessels manufactured in the vicinity).

The fishing activities are quite lively in Kumbe. Local fishers welcomed us with an enthusiastic greeting and open arms when we met at their place to conduct the interview. This interview was aimed at gathering ecological, governance and socio-economic data regarding transboundary issues in Merauke. The locals revealed that, in addition to ships from Kumbe and Merauke, there were also a lot of vessels from Maluku, Java and Makassar. The local fishermen stated that a number of shrimp ships from other provinces and districts docked in Kumbe too. Several fishermen agreed that an increased number of vessels in Kumbe could increase fishing competition, but several others stated they are not really affected by the conditions. 

Image Credit: Ketut Listyani Sri Rejeki for the ATSEA-2 Project

“Of course, the number of ships increases from time to time, but that (is normally) shrimp ships,” explained one of the fishermen, who added that these are not their usual fishing grounds, so they only tend to dock here. “That is not particularly a problem for our fishing activity, but that would be a problem if they started to throw their rubbish into the water,” he added.

The local fishermen are also used to venturing beyond Merauke and even, in rare cases, across the country boundary. One of them shared a story about how he once went shark fishing over the Australian border. He claimed that, since the shark habitat was near Australia, he did it inadvertently, but his action was not without repercussions; hundreds of shark fishermen were apprehended by Australian patrols and sent back to Indonesia, while their ships were burned in Australia. After the incident, local fishermen became more cautious of their fishing activities, especially in terms of the routes they take.   

The Kumbe fishers suggested that illegal fishing is caused by a lack of fishery community management in their village; a lot of fishers have not been recorded here, which has made it harder for fishers to raise their issues with the local authorities. Additionally, the disorganisation of the community themselves makes it challenging to provide assistance and support. 

Image Credit: Ketut Listyani Sri Rejeki for the ATSEA-2 Project

It was a great experience to hold such an open discussion with the community; to learn their story, understand their concerns and recognise their needs. A long-term commitment will be needed to address the current issues from a community, ecological and governance perspective; however, community involvement offers an essential first step towards sustainable development in Merauke.

The ATSEA-2 project is working together with the Centre for Coastal and Marine Resources Studies – IPB University (CCMRS-IPB) as the national TDA (Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis) consultant for Indonesia. Together, these organisations have conducted a primary data assessment survey to identify issues and opportunities for development in the Arafura and Timor Seas. The implementation is expected to balance both scientific inputs and community aspirations in Merauke.

(By Ketut Listyani Sri Rejeki)

Image Credit: Chris Alexander for the ATSEA-2 Project