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Indonesian fisheries minister arrested over graft in lobster policy

  • Indonesia’s fisheries minister Edhy Prabowo and other top officials have been arrested by the anti-graft agency in connection to the new lobster seed export policy that was issued in May.
  • Fishery watchdogs have praised the KPK for the arrest of Edhy in connection to the lobster export policy which observers have criticized for catering more to the interests of few businesses and politicians than those of the small fishers.
  • Lobsters are among Indonesia’s top fisheries commodities, but the illegal export of larvae cost the country 900 billion rupiah ($62 million) in lost revenue in 2019 alone, according to the the government’s anti-money-laundering watchdog.

JAKARTA — Authorities in Indonesia have arrested the country’s fisheries minister on charges of corruption related to a controversial policy to resume exports of baby lobsters.

Agents from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) arrested Edhy Prabowo, his wife and a number of other ministry officials in the early hours of Nov. 25 at Soekarno-Hatta airport, upon their arrival from the U.S. They are being held for questioning at the KPK headquarters in Jakarta.

“It is true that [the arrest] is connected to the lobster larvae export,” KPK deputy commissioner Nurul Ghufron told broadcaster Kompas TV.

Edhy’s arrest is the latest development stemming from his widely criticized decision in May to lift a ban, imposed by former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, on exports of lobster larvae. Conservationists warned the new policy would undo efforts to replenish Indonesia’s wild lobster stocks, while fisheries industry watchers and investigative reporting found the selection of approved exporters was rife with nepotism and cronyism.

“So many things in the lobster larvae export policy aren’t transparent or accountable,” Susan Herawati, secretary-general of the NGO Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), said in a statement received by Mongabay after Edhy’s arrest.

An official in Bali shows lobster larvae seized from a smuggling attempt. Image by Luh de Suriyani/Mongabay Indonesia.
Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo, center, in May lifted a ban on exports of wild-caught lobster larvae. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

Former minister Susi had imposed the export ban in 2016 to prevent the overfishing of wild lobster stocks in Indonesian waters. Edhy, who has feuded publicly with Susi on several issues since taking office last year, first touted the plan to end the ban last December, saying he wanted to cater to small fishermen who depended on export markets. He also said Susi’s ban had failed to tackle the illegal lobster market.

This past July, an investigation by newsmagazine Tempo highlighted potential violations by some of the newly licensed exporters. Within less than two months, Edhy’s office had granted export permits to 31 companies out of the 100 that applied. Among the owners, directors or executives of several of those companies are politicians from the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra. Edhy is a senior Gerindra member and close confidant to party chairman Prabowo Subianto, who is the defense minister.

A separate investigation by Mongabay Indonesia also found that many of the exporters had bypassed a key requirement to partner with small fishers to set up lobster farms. They instead bought directly from the fishers — in some cases not paying in full — and not investing in aquaculture farms.

“The KPK must thoroughly investigate this corruption allegation to its core,” Susan said. “All of the links in this network must be revealed and punished according to the laws of Indonesia.”

Conservationists and policymakers consider illegal exports of lobster larvae a major threat to wild populations. The fisheries ministry puts the latest estimate of potential wild lobster stock in Indonesian waters at 27 billion. But the National Commission for Fisheries Resources Research (Komnas Kajiskan) reported in 2016 that lobsters in six out of 11 fisheries management areas in Indonesia were overfished, while the rest were being harvested at maximum capacity.

The ministry currently allows the wild harvesting of nearly 140 million lobster larvae per year; 70% is allocated for domestic cultivation in aquaculture farms, and the rest for export.

Lobsters are among Indonesia’s top fisheries commodities, but the illegal export of larvae cost the country 900 billion rupiah ($62 million) in lost revenue in 2019 alone, according to the PPATK, the government’s anti-money-laundering watchdog. The larvae are typically sold to buyers in Vietnam, Singapore and China, where they can be raised and sold when mature at much higher prices.

But fisheries experts and conservationists say the quota and other measures will not be enough to spur companies into investing in Indonesia’s lobster aquaculture sector, or to stop illegal lobster exports.

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