International Waters: Confusion and Frustration Still Reign Regarding Indonesian Corals

As some readers will, no doubt, remember, I reported some months back that the Indonesian coral crisis was over. I, along with numerous colleagues in the industry, had received news that the suspension on exports that had been abruptly implemented on May 4, 2018, had been lifted.

How wrong I was! Well, how partly wrong I was. And I’m not alone.

We had been led to believe that, following an announcement from the Indonesian House of Representatives, the export ban had been lifted, and that, as a result, exports would soon resume. All along, though, it had appeared that the degree of liaison between all the departments involved was less than what it should have, ideally, been. This, as it now turns out, was a very mild way of referring to what, in some people’s view, was—and still is—an absolute mess.

However, we were all pleased and hugely relieved when, on Oct. 1, 2018, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries finally lifted the ban, leading us all to believe that the crisis was over, as all that was left was for the exporters to obtain the relevant export documents, including CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] clearance. I, therefore, optimistically said, "Normality will probably have been restored by the time we go to press."

Sadly, this hasn’t happened, and as a result, concern has once more been growing within the industry that confusion still reigns as to whether or not exports will resume—and/or when this is going to happen.

In an attempt to clear up this confusing state of affairs, Shane Willis, the president of Ornamental Fish International (OFI), traveled to Indonesia and held discussions with all the relevant parties. The outcome of these discussions leaves no doubt that confusion is still rampant, and that the whole situation is not just frustrating, but very disturbing.

During his stay in Indonesia, Willis met with several high-ranking officials, including the director general of product competitiveness at the Ministry of Marine Affairs and the deputy for coordinating natural resources and services at the Ministry for Maritime Affairs. He also met with members of the Indonesian Coral, Shell and Fish Ornamental Association (AKKII).

To quote Willis: "… the export and, consequently, transportation suspension is still in effect, and there still seems to be a huge amount of confusion about what the situation is."

Although the suspension was implemented on May 4, no clear statement had yet been made by the government by mid-December explaining why the suspension had been forced on the industry. There had been rumors that it might have been enacted to combat illegal activities or the "green-washing" of product, a strategy employed to create the impression that a certain product, or policy, is eco-friendly. However, the authorities have not confirmed this, so everyone is still in the dark.

What is particularly frustrating is that the majority of Indonesian ministries involved in this affair—and there are seven of these—are supportive of the coral sector. For example, a recent report by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) concluded that, while coral bleaching and food fish practices impacted negatively on the reefs, the institute supported extraction of farmed corals and that this practice made a positive contribution to the environment. However, the coordinating minister of maritime affairs stated that, while he thought that farmed corals were being exported again, and should, in fact, be exported, wild corals should be left in the sea.

This comes in the face of evidence that, by investing around $30 million over the past decade, these farms, spread over an area of 41.1 hectares of artificial reef, are contributing significantly to coral reef restoration, as they put back 10 percent of their product to restore degraded and damaged reefs. But, when the left hand does not appear to know what the right one is doing, and when there are so many separate ministries and departments voicing an opinion and involved in decision making—each, perhaps, with its own agenda—the result is, inevitably, chaotic and disastrous.

An estimated 10,000 jobs have been lost while all the to-ing and fro-ing has been going on, with most exporters having to reduce their workforce by 20-30 percent. Tanks are lying empty at many exporters’ premises, while others are attempting to move to fish and noncoral invertebrates. Indonesian exporters have, so far, lost around $16 million in sales at the time of writing, which translates to $64 million at retail. If we then add coral-associated products, accessories and supplements to the equation, the Indonesian ban could be costing the industry in general some $140 million in lost revenue to date.

Despite all of this, AKKII members remain optimistic that a resolution will be found and that exports will resume soon. I can’t help feeling that some of this optimism could be somewhat misplaced. However, one never knows. Ministers might "see the light" overnight, or there could be a change of government that will bring in a new perspective. Or perhaps not.