Is Indonesia’s Explosive Curb on Illegal Foreign Fishing Harming Its Own People?

by Owen James Burke


Above: Two Papua New Guinea-flagged ships are blown up in Indonesian waters after officials seized them and detained their crew. These are just two of the latest in a string of illegal vessels that have been blown up by the government in an attempt to deter illegal fishing. Photo: Izaac Mulyawan/REUTERS

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is taking a definitively militant stance against illegal fishing. It’s part of what he calls Indonesia’s new policy of “shock therapy” towards illegal poachers. He sank three Vietnamese ships just last week, telling the Antara News Agency, “We sunk three of them on Friday to teach them a lesson, so that they will give up poaching in Indonesian waters.” Last Sunday, Widodo’s government reported that it had detained and detonated and sunk 22 vessels from China alone (after emptying their fuel). Within five days of the “shock therapy” announcement, Indonesia had detained 155 foreign fishing boats. Still, this is a relative drop in the bucket.

“Every day there [are] around 5,400 [foreign] boats in our ocean and our sea,” Widodo told The Wall Street Journal. “And 90% of them are illegal. So to give shock therapy to them, of course, we [are] sinking them.”

Taiwan’s fisheries agency is pleading with Indonesia that it follow international protocol regarding illegal fishing activity, which allows for the seizure of vessels and arrests of crew, but forbids nation-states from opening fire, which is generally considered an act of war. Vietnam and Papua New Guinea — two nations in high tension with Indonesia — are likewise not pleased.

Interestingly too, many Indonesian fishermen are also angry at the president’s actions. Surely, they reason, an Indonesian fisherman could have adopted a newly seized boat, rather than watch it be filled with explosives and sent to the depths to rot. Another factor is that many of these foreign-flagged vessels are actually employing Indonesians. Likewise, many Indonesian captains are actually operating foreign flagged vessels in their home waters. In short, the issue is considerably more complicated than it would at first seem.



Above: Indonesian Navy Officers open fire upon a Vietnamese fishing vessel suspected of illegally operating off Anambas Island in Riau province on December 5, 2014. Photo: AFP via AsiaOne

Large scale fisheries generally require three vessels for the effective transportation of fish from the sea and into markets: One: Boats that catch fish. Two: Logistics boats to deliver fuel and store catch. Three: Transport vessels which make long runs across oceans to ports with large global fish markets like Hong Kong. Indonesian fleets cover the first two, but lack the third long run capacity.

The Indonesian government reports that illegal fishing costs the nation nearly $24 billion USD annually, but the real losers under the new “Shock Therapy” plan, says Mr. Rendra Purdiansa, the secretary of the Indonesian Pursein Fishermen’s Association, are actually the nation’s local fishermen. The members Purdiansa’s Indonesian Pursein Fishermen’s Association for example, own 231 vessels. These are mostly small fishing boats that don’t have the cold storage facilities required for international transport. Nor can these small vessel fishermen afford the fuel for costly trips between fishing grounds and port cities. Some travel 100 miles from southern Java to catch tuna. As a result, they will be forced to deliver their catch not to high-paying transport vessels, but to lower paying vessels back home that lack state-of-the-art cold storage facilities. The end result will be less return for the fishermen and lower quality fish.


Above: Didik Hengky Prasetya holds a skipjack tuna. In the wake of the curb on foreign fishing vessels in Indonesian waters, his small fishing village of Pancer, which has no large transport vessels with cold storage facilities for fish, now has no way of getting their getting their catch to the international market where it would earn considerably more. Photo: Owen James Burke

In some towns, the economic benefits for small fishing vessels doing business with international fleets have been extraordinary. The remote fishing village of Pancer on the south coast of Java, which I visited earlier in 2014, showed substantial signs of economic growth from previous years. The increased demand for lobster in Asian markets, for instance, has brought a drastic rise in the price for lobster. Pancer’s fishermen were still severely under-compensated for their dangerous work — they regularly dive with surface-supplied air to depths of 120 feet — but their income had begun to grow rapidly. Around Pancer, this new wealth was showing. Many families were beginning to afford luxuries they’d never even imagined (simple things we in the first world might consider necessities). Not only were their decrepit, dangerous fishing vessels being retired, updated, or replaced altogether; roads were being built, and nearly every family owned a motor vehicle. Still, as with economic stimulus anywhere, economic disparity was also on the rise. Some households had seen vast improvements in their quality of life. Others were having trouble finding money to install a front door on their houses.

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While these traditional wooden boats with their rust-strap engines still hold their charm, most lack integrity on the open water. My friend Prasetya, whom I met in Pancer, was fishing for tuna from a similar vessel when it broke up in a storm and left he and his brothers stranded on the open Indian Ocean for 20 days. Photo: Owen James Burke

So right at the point that Indonesian fishermen — long accustomed to an almost desperate spear and reel-to-mouth existence — are able to pay for family medical care, drive a car and put their children through school, President Widodo decides that any foreign vessels suspected of conducting illegal fishing in Indonesian waters will be detained, if not fired upon. It’s a gut-wrenching blow to people who were finally living in a state other than obscure, abysmal poverty.

Environmentally of course, a larger-scale, import- and export-based global fishing industry can have devastating impacts on a third-world fishery. In the case of the spiny lobster, Pancer’s lobstermen may be doing considerably better at the bank, but not so much for the lobster population, whose growing value at market only causes them to become more rigorously targeted, ultimately resulting in a depletion of the species – and an eventual return to poverty for the fishermen.

The bottom line is that behind the dramatic photos of exploding boats lies a complex issue, spanning 17,000 islands with already complicated politics. Ultimately, this is the far-reaching result of globalization in both the under-developed and developing worlds. Confrontations like this seem likely to continue, if not increase exponentially, and massive illegal fishing being practiced right under president Widodo’s nose, perhaps political attention should not only be directed on foreign vessels, but ALL illegal fishing occurring in Indonesian waters. This too, is easier said than done. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but from my own experience among fishermen and fisheries so lacking in resources, the scuttling of valuable fishing vessels just to make an example seems utterly irresponsible.

Read more at the Jakarta Post and AsiaOne — OJB

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