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To deter Chinese sea claims, Indonesia puts its fishers on the front line

  • Indonesia is increasing both its security and fishing presence in the waters around the Natuna Islands, following the latest incursion into the area by Chinese vessels.
  • China claims much of the South China Sea, including the waters near the Natunas, but that particular area is internationally recognized as part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
  • In a bid to deter future incursions, the Indonesian government has called on fishing fleets operating in the Java Sea to move to the Natunas.
  • But observers warn that the arrival of the better-equipped Java fishers could create new tensions with the small-scale fishers already plying the Natuna waters, while doing little to thwart Chinese or other foreign fishing boats.

JAKARTA — Indonesia is ramping up its fisheries in the waters around its northern Natuna Islands, following an incursion into the area by fishing boats and a coast guard vessel from China.

The area in question is internationally recognized as part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, a sweep of sea extending 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the country’s coast. But according to China, the area falls within the “Nine-Dash Line” that stakes Beijing’s claim to much of the South China Sea. (China doesn’t claim the islands themselves, but fishing rights within the seas around them.)

The latest standoff began last December when a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels appeared to be operating in the Natuna waters, accompanied by a Chinese coast guard ship. While foreign boats are allowed to pass through a country’s EEZ, fishing there is strictly prohibited.

Indonesia has since beefed up its military presence in the area, with the Chinese vessels reportedly leaving Indonesia’s EEZ earlier this month. President Joko Widdodo, who visited the islands in a show of force, has also asked Japan to invest in fisheries, energy and tourism in the Natunas, in a bid to cement Indonesia’s presence in the area.

“There is no bargaining when it comes to our sovereignty, our country’s territorial,” Widodo said on Jan. 6.

In addition, the government has called on domestic fishing fleets operating in the Java Sea to deploy to the Natunas some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away. This last move has prompted criticism of both the longstanding lack of government support for Natuna’s local fishers, and the potential for a fresh dispute if the better-equipped Java fishers are perceived to benefit at the expense of the Natuna fishers.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, and officials from the fisheries ministry visit Natuna following illegal fishing activity by Chinese boats in Indonesian waters. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Experts have highlighted the scarcity of Indonesian fishing vessels operating in the Natunas and the lack of facilities on land to process catches, which inevitably end up being taken to Java.

“We’ve always been weak in exploiting the natural resources in Indonesia’s EEZ, including the Natuna waters,” Ari Purbayanto, a fisheries professor at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture Institute (IPB), outside Jakarta, told Mongabay in a text message.

Most of the catches brought ashore in the Natunas come from vessels smaller than 10 gross tonnage (GT), while larger boats reportedly almost never landed their catches there. The Natuna waters are estimated to have more than 750,000 tons of fish stock. The government has tried to address this by establishing a cold storage center and a boat repair station in Natuna.

“Exploiting the resources in Indonesia’s EEZ by our national fleet is a form of ‘effective occupation’ by us [who] clearly have the sovereign right there,” Purbayanto said.

Chinese fishing boats operating in the waters of Indonesia’s Natuna Íslands. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

But others have criticized the plan to send hundreds of fishermen from the northern coast of Java to Natuna. They warn the increased Indonesian fishing presence won’t necessarily deter Chinese or other foreign fishing vessels, while at the same time they could potentially trigger conflict with the local small-scale fishers of Natuna.

“We can and are willing to sail all the way to the EEZ, but the thing is our fleet is inadequate and we don’t have the technology,” Al Izhar, a fisherman from Natuna, told Mongabay Indonesia in a phone interview.

“But if we are trained, we can contribute to play our role in being on the front line for the nation,” he added.

Beefing up the state’s security presence is also key to tackling fishing by foreign vessels, experts say. Indonesia’s former fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, was widely hailed for her tough policy against foreign poachers, which centered on seizing and sinking their boats.

“Indonesia’s tough policy against foreign fishing boats under Susi’s leadership in the last five years clearly grabbed the attention of and became a key consideration for neighboring fishing vessels to be more careful when they operate in the borders or within Indonesia’s EEZ,” Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, told Mongabay in a text message.

Maritime observers have called for an immediate easing of tensions between Indonesia and China in Natuna, which they warn could affect the sustainability and security of the fisheries industry in the region.

Purbayanto said that Chinese fishing boats typically used destructive equipment such as large pair trawls. “They will drain the resources while we just watch it happen,” he said. “It’s possible that right now we’re importing fish from China that actually was stolen from Indonesia.”

President Joko Widodo has ordered an increased security presence in the Natuna waters following the incursion by Chinese fishing boats and coast guard. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

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