Fish being loaded into a truck for processing and export in Batu Putih, North Sulawesi. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
In late December, Indonesian officials seized a Panamanian-flagged, Chinese-manned vessel named MV Hai Fa in the archipelago’s eastern waters on charges that it lacked a permit to operate in the country and had deliberately turned off its transmitters to evade government monitors. When officials peeled back the lid of the Hai Fa’s hold, they found 900 tons of fish and prawns, including 66 tons of hammerhead, whitetip and other shark species.
Weighing in at 4,306 gross tons, the Hai Fa is the largest foreign boat Indonesia has apprehended amid a string of such seizures for illegal fishing since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office last year. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s signature response has been to literally blow the rogue vessels out of the water, creating sensational headlines in the local and international press.
A fishing boat flying Indonesia’s flag is sunk off the coast of Sumatra on February 9, after the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry evacuated the all-Thai crew. Photo courtesy of the ministry.
Things have been more complicated with the Hai Fa. After an Indonesian court fined its operator, Antarticha Segara Lines, a paltry $15,444, which the company promptly paid, Susi promised that her ministry would appeal the ruling. “We can’t allow this kind of verdict to be handed down to perpetrators of illegal fishing,” she said.
Antarticha Segara countered by filing a police report against Susi for defamation, saying she “damaged” the firm’s reputation by claiming it operated illegally. The company’s legal counsel argued the Hai Fa was a tramper which only transported fish and did no actual fishing.
Then, on April 24, the National Police announced that Indonesia’s criminal code only recognizes defamation claims made by “an individual and not a company or a ship.” It is unclear whether Antarticha Segara will continue to pursue the lawsuit or if any kind of harsher penalty will be levied against it.
Whatever the case, Indonesia has shown no signs of abating its crackdown on illegal, unregulated and underreported (IUU) fishing. The term describes a range of offenses, including smuggling fish abroad, underreporting landings, going after protected species and using illegal equipment like dynamite, cyanide or large trawl nets.
IUU fishing is huge in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelagic country with 81,000 square kilometers of territorial waters, though no one can quite measure its impact on the marine environment and national resources. The Indonesian Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA) said it cost Indonesia $7 billion from January to August last year. The Surveillance Directorate-General at Susi’s ministry put the figure at $40 billion a year.
The environmental impacts are equally staggering. With two thirds of the world’s marine biodiversity, Indonesia is home to some of the planet’s most incredible underwater ecosystems. But the creatures therein are also some of the highest-priced marine species – including varieties of sea cucumber, grouper and tuna – which are fished with little regard for sustainability and ecological concerns.
A live leopard coral grouper caught in Sulawesi. Photo: Melati Kaye
Bent on tackling the issue, the Jokowi administration developed a hard-charging strategy shortly after coming to power. At the end of April, Susi’s ministry announced it had seized 63 fishing vessels in 2015 on charges of IUU fishing. That included 28 boats from Indonesia, 19 from Vietnam, seven from the Philippines, four from Thailand and four from Malaysia. Since Susi took office, the ministry has sunk 14 vessels.
These efforts are largely due to the ministry’s field analysis and evaluation team, known as Anev, and its IUU taskforce. Last week, Susi announced that of 1,132 vessels Anev had audited, 464 were found to be in violation of a rule requiring them to turn on their vessel monitoring system – like the Hai Fa. Other violations have also been identified, and permits could be rescinded as a result.
Still, the ministry’s director-general in charge of both the IUU taskforce and Anev has said he cannot beef up monitoring and enforcement without 140 additional personnel. He would like to be levying fines and arresting captains who operate government-subsidized boats without licenses or pilot boats of more than 30 gross tons without monitoring systems, which were introduced in 2014 so the ministry could track fishing boat movements by satellite.
But the monitoring system only enables surveillance, whereas the problems with the Hai Fa arose after its seizure. To address issues like these, the ministry will soon launch a publicly accessible e-database of illegal fishing cases in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office, according to Achmad Santoso, the head of the IUU taskforce. “The database will help the navy, police, court system and Fisheries Ministry coordinate in processing the cases,” he said.
Susi hopes such coordination will engender the same zeal she has exhibited in pursuing illicit foreign vessels among other officials whose assistance she will need to make gains against IUU fishing sustainable.