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End of the line for foreign-made fishing boats in Indonesia?

  • Foreign companies have allegedly used shell companies to skirt Indonesia’s laws on foreign fishing.
  • Fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti is now cracking down on such practices.
  • Last year, Pudjiastuti audited 1,132 foreign-made boats, and she believes all of them are fraudulent.

Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti is purging the archipelago of foreign-made fishing boats, which she believes are being widely used as fronts for illegal foreign fishing operations.

The action follows a 2015 audit of 1,132 foreign-built boats. Of those, 328 were cited for major infractions, have been “blacklisted” and will be sunk by the government; and 390 were cited for minor infractions and are being asked to deregister. The other 414 have reportedly fled the country.

In a recent interview with the investigative weekly Tempo, Pudjiastuti said that although the boats had appeared to be legitimately purchased from abroad, they were actually still controlled by foreign outfits. These outsiders, she said, had made a practice of establishing “phony companies” in the archipelago in order to reflag as Indonesian and gain access to the country’s rich fisheries.

“If the purchases are legitimate, where’s the evidence of transfer?” Pudjiastuti told the magazine. “They have all lied.

“We don’t just impose bans. If we make mistakes, we are inviting [the aggrieved parties to file] lawsuits with the state administrative court.”

Many of the purported owners of the boats cited for minor infractions, including the tycoon Tomy Winata, have agreed to deregister; others are still resisting, according to Pudjiastuti. “If further investigated, all of them will be seen as committing fraud,” she said. “Then we could just sink their vessels.”

Deregistered boats will be allowed to “return home,” she added.

A Thai fishing boat along Koh Samet, an island in the country’s eastern seaboard. Photo: Philippe Gabriel/Wikimedia Commons
A Thai fishing boat along Koh Samet, an island in the country’s eastern seaboard. Photo: Philippe Gabriel/Wikimedia Commons

Many of the boats that fled are moored in the Thai port town of Mahachai, according to Mas Achmad Santosa, the head of Pudjiastuti’s special illegal fishing task force. He told Tempo that Indonesia would ask Interpol, the international police agency, to assign them “purple status” so their movements could be tracked.

Last year, the head of a Thai fishery association told Tempo that of the 300 Thai-skippered boats that normally operate in Indonesia, “all are owned by Thai fishermen.”

“We are able to [fish in Indonesia] because we only need to look for the right connections,” Praporn Ekouru said. “Our fishermen only need to provide them with the documents needed.”

If enforced, the prohibition on foreign-made boats will put the brakes on an arrangement experts say has allowed illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to flourish in maritime Indonesia, costing the nation an estimated $20 billion a year and trapping thousands of mainland Southeast Asian migrants in slavery at sea.

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