On the Trail to Seram, Indonesia

A trip to five Indonesian communities who fish Fair Trade Certified™ yellowfin tuna.

On November 1, I set out on a four-day journey to visit the Indonesian island of Seram, home to multiple Fair Trade Certified yellowfin tuna fishing communities. My travel companions, who would introduce me to the fishermen from the Fair Trade Associations*, were Jaz, the Fair Trade Manager of Yayasan Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia (MDPI), a local NGO focused on achieving responsible and sustainable fisheries; and Sven, Fair Trade’s Indonesian-based field coordinator.

The travel to Seram is intense. From Bali, we took 2 two-hour flights, transiting in Makassar (Sven’s home) before arriving in Ambon, the capital city of Maluku. The next day, we took a two-hour ferry trip through the Banda Sea, winding our way through the Maluku Islands, formerly known as the Spice Islands because nutmeg, cloves, and mace were originally only found there. Upon our arrival to Seram, we took a three-hour car ride along the winding shore to reach the Tehoru villages, our first stop of five villages we visited in a single day, to meet with the communities who fish Fair Trade Certified yellowfin tuna.

*A Fair Trade Fishing Association is a democratically-run organization who represents fishermen on any matters affecting their fishing activity, including the requirements of Fair Trade standards, local laws and regulations controlling the fishery, and fishery-related infrastructure. Members coordinate resource management, vessel safety, and trade relationships with buyers.

First stop: Tuna Yapana

The first Fair Trade Association we visited was “Tuna Yapana,” which has 20 members. We sat with them on the tile porch of a small house while freshly harvested cloves dried on mats on the side of the road. It was hot and humid. Jaz had mentioned this Association was struggling and that I should offer words of encouragement. With Sven interpreting, I told the group that because of their efforts and participation in the Fair Trade program, they are now part of an international fishing community, along with Alaskan salmon and Mexican shrimp fishermen, as well as a part of the entire Fair Trade community, which includes coffee farmers in Colombia and garment workers in India. They know their fish ends up on shelves in U.S. and were interested to see a photo of the packaged tuna that Jaz took on a recent trip to Los Angeles.

These fishermen can travel up to 40 miles per day in their slender boats in search of tuna, following telltale signs of birds and dolphins, whose presence indicate tuna is somewhere near. They travel these distances with a Styrofoam box full of ice, which is less expensive than a cooler but doesn’t keep the ice inside frozen nearly as long. Jaz gently suggested they could buy an ice machine with their Fair Trade Community Development Funds to make their own ice, or coolers to keep the ice they buy frozen for longer periods of time. They listened to her suggestion but remained keen on buying new motors for their fishermen. They will need to save for these, considering that one motor costs about 26 million rupiah ($1,800 USD), more than half the average salary in Indonesia of $2,700 annually.


Tuna Abadi

About 15 minutes farther along the single road from “Tuna Yapana” is the second Association we met, called “Tuna Abadi" (“Tuna Forever”). This village was also a location of an ice station and a rudimentary primary processing facility, where they initially process the fish, put it on ice, and ship it by truck, then ferry, to Ambon for further processing at a modern facility. There are maybe three or four such stations along this road that accept tuna from the fishermen and ship it off island for further processing. This Association is vulnerable to unscrupulous middlemen making promises of new motors or more money when a fisherman sells him ten tons of fish. It’s all too common: the middlemen, usually not from the province, leave town before the fisherman can reach the agreed-to volume, leaving him without his promised motor or additional money. Jaz did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to show that each of the nine fishermen in the program harvested on average only six tons last year, well below the ten tons the middleman requires in exchange for some sort of benefit. She suggested that Tuna Abadi take a stand and not fall for these middlemen anymore. They have strength in numbers and are well positioned to avoid such shady practices.


Tuna Hamua

Farther down the road in the village of Misa was the 13-person Fair Trade Association called “Tuna Hamua” or “Tuna Shelf” (as in ocean shelf). The energy was more positive here; children swarmed all around while the fishermen showed us a Community Development project: better lighting for the on-shore boat storage. They offered us sweetened coffee with milk and we sat on the tiled porch with a view of the water and discussed the challenges in their fishery. They are just one year into working with Fair Trade, but already report improvements on business, organization, community, and skill as fishermen. Fair Trade represents for them additional earned income. For context, fishermen are paid 54,000 rupiah ($3.70 USD) per kilogram for tuna loins that are four kilograms and higher; 40,000 rupiah ($2.75) for three to four kilogram loins; 29,000 rupiah ($1.99) for loins two to three kilograms. Fishermen fish 20 times a month on average and catch around 40 kilograms per day during a six-month fishing season. They are very happy in the program and want to be on the same level as the other Fair Trade Associations who are further along in the program. For instance, they want to invest in a weighing station in their village, which would enable them to get their fish to market more quickly and further improve quality because the fish would spend less time in transit and on ice.


Tuna Ampera

The fourth group we met, “Tuna Ampera” was by far the most sophisticated of the groups we met. Now in their third year of working with Fair Trade, they have invested their Community Development Funds strategically in projects including GPS systems, better lighting at their mosque, and safety jackets with environmental slogans on them, like “Our Future Sea.” They plan to buy electronic fish finders for their group, which will improve their efficiency by helping limit the amount of gas they use when they are out all day on the water looking for fish. Jaz encouraged them to continue thinking about more investment-minded decisions for future Community Development Fund use. They are very adept at tracking catches and logging additional traceability information the Fair Trade standard requires. They view this as a responsibility and part of their job, not a burden. The fishermen’s wives, however, find burdensome the fact that the fishermen must occasionally attend Fair Trade Committee meetings as part of the certification, which takes away from the limited time they have at home to spend with their families. Jaz suggested that the fishermen bring their wives to the meeting, which would enable the women to present their ideas about how to invest Fair Trade funds while also being able to spend more time with their husbands.


Last stop: Tanjung Kelapa and Haruo

The final meeting of the day took place after dark along the roadside in front of a sleek processing/weighing station. Under the street lamps, we met with two Fair Trade Associations: “Tanjung Kelapa” with 11 fishermen, and “Haruo” with 24 fishermen. Because of the late hour, the conversation moved around a lot. One fishermen concerned about a malfunctioning scale at his weighing facility was able to speak directly with Jaz and the manager attending to the weighing station and get assurance that the machine had been repaired. The advantage of Fair Trade Associations, as Jaz reminded everyone, is addressing community issues like these as a group.

I left the island of Seram full of mosquito bites and a new appreciation for the effort that goes into the catch and care of the fish we eat. Fair Trade USA is proud to support hardworking fishermen, as well as the processors, distributors, brands, and retailers who work hard to bring Fair Trade Certified tuna to your table. It really does take a village!


Julie Kuchepatov is Director of the Seafood Program at Fair Trade USA.

Find Fair Trade Certified tuna under the Natural Blue brand at Albertson’s, HyVee, Price Chopper, and other retailers nationwide. Check out our seafood shopping guide for recipes and more retail locations.



indonesian fishing boats

Fishermen can travel up to 40 miles per day in slender boats like these in search of tuna.

Strength in numbers

Fishermen from Tuna Abadi gather for a meeting. Together, they are well positioned to avoid shady practices of middlemen.

tuna abadi

An Indonesian girl eavesdrops on a Fair Trade Association meeting.

Tuna Hamua

They are just one year into working with Fair Trade, but already report improvements on business, organization, community, and skill as fishermen.

tuna Ampera

Now in their third year of working with Fair Trade, this association has invested their Community Development Funds strategically in projects including GPS systems, better lighting at their mosque, and safety jackets with environmental slogans on them, like “Our Future Sea.”