Conservation news

Indonesia’s decision to share vessel tracking data ‘ill-advised,’ some say

A fishermen's haul in Indonesia's Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

  • In June, Indonesia became the first country to share its Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data, which tracks location and activities of commercial fishing boats, with Global Fishing Watch which uses tools like satellite imagery to monitor environmental issues.
  • While the move is praised by conservationists for its potential to deter illegal fishing, some observers argue that publishing the data will backfire on the location of Indonesia’s best fisheries.
  • Supporters of the policy refute the claims saying that it will help Indonesian authorities intercept any sign of violations on the country’s oceans, and boost compliance among fishing businesses in sustainable marine and fisheries.

JAKARTA — Not everyone supports the Indonesian government’s decision to publish information on the location of fishing boats in its waters, via data mapping platform Global Fishing Watch, accessible to anyone with a computer.

The move, aimed at countering illegal fishing, has earned a backlash from some observers, who say it may prove “counterproductive.”

In June, Indonesia became the first country to share its Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data with Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Google, conservation group Oceana, and SkyTruth, which uses tools like satellite imagery to monitor environmental issues. The platform provides both general data for the public and more detailed information seen only by authorities.

A screenshot from Global Fishing Watch, showing locations of Indonesian fishing vessels in the country’s waters.

The move was praised by conservationists for its potential to deter illegal fishing. But some argue that publishing the data will reveal the location of Indonesia’s best fisheries, creating a run on the resources that further depletes them.

“Without any access restrictions to the data, fishing vessels will likely rush to sail to locations with the most fishing vessels, and this will result in massive exploitation of marine natural resources,” said Marthin Hadiwinata of the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Union (KNTI).

“Isn’t that going to end up becoming unsustainable instead?”

Indonesian fishing vessels have long been required to share location data with the government. A 2008 regulation requires VMS to be installed on all fishing boats with a capacity of at least 30 gross tons, or averaging about 16 meters or more. The system transmits data showing the activity and pinpoint position of the boat as it sails across the country’s waters and parts of the Indian Ocean.

Now, that information can be accessed by anyone via Global Fishing Watch. With the data from Indonesia, the tool can now analyze the behavior and movement of nearly 5,000 vessels.

Alan F. Koropitan, an oceanography professor from Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University, said he supports transparency. But he called publishing VMS data “ill-advised.”

Such “raw” and “strictly confidential” information could be assimilated by foreign companies for personal gain, including projecting Indonesia’s fisheries industry in the future, he said.

“It can lead to data misuse by irresponsible parties and subsequently prove counterproductive to our national fisheries management and marine conservation,” Koropitan said.

A commercial Indonesian fishing boat. Photo by James Gagen/Wikimedia Commons.

Fishing businesses tend to be discreet about where they fish in order to prevent others from exploiting those sites, Hadiwinata said.

He raised fears that foreign experts and governments equipped with advanced maritime apparatus could exploit information on Indonesia’s natural resources and traditional knowledge without local fishers’ consent.

The Indonesian government refutes the claims, citing that the public only receives general, three-day-old data, while more detailed information, including a ship’s identity and tonnage, is exclusively for the authorities for law enforcement and legal purposes.

“We don’t think it’s ‘counterproductive’ because everything now is well-supervised, so any indication of a violation can be intercepted,” said Goenaryo, director of monitoring at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

The data, he said, would actually help the government identify “more-structured patterns of violations” by fishing boats.

Arifsyah Nasution, ocean campaigner at Greenpeace, also rebuffed arguments against publishing VMS data, saying it would in fact boost compliance among fishing vessels in sustainable marine and fisheries.

He described the policy as “revolutionary,” saying it could underpin widespread reformation for a better fisheries management in both regional and global scopes.

“It establishes a strong and transparent partnership between governments in order to fundamentally, comprehensively, and effectively eradicate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, including slavery at sea and human right abuse in fisheries,” he said.

The fisheries ministry said the government had “wisely” taken “all aspects” into account before making the decision to part with VMS data, and insisted on its benefit in allowing the public to serve as a watchdog.

“The main goal [of this initiative] is to monitor [Indonesian] sustainable fisheries resources so that anyone who wishes to commit any IUU-related violation will refrain from doing it because all eyes are now watching,” Goenaryo said.

President Joko Widodo made the oceans a top priority when he took office in 2014. He has taken aggressive measures to clamp down on illegal and unreported fishing through policies like banning foreign-made vessels from operating in the country’s waters and blowing up poachers’ boats.

“If fishing businesses conduct accordingly to the regulations, why should they feel worried about being watched over?” Goenaryo said.

Other nations should share their VMS data too in order to boost transparency and end illegal fishing, fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said at a recent UN conference in New York.

“Illegal fishing is an international problem, and countering it requires cross-border cooperation between countries,” she said.

Peru is the only other country that has vowed to publish its VMS data, but it is yet to share it on Global Fishing Watch. Indonesia and Peru are among the world’s top five fishing nations.


Banner image: A fishermen’s haul in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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