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Lobster export policy that landed Indonesian minister in jail could resume

  • Indonesia’s interim fisheries minister has indicated a controversial program to export lobster larvae could likely resume, despite being at the heart of an ongoing corruption investigation that has ensnared his predecessor.
  • The former minister, Edhy Prabowo, was arrested Nov. 25 on allegations of bribery related to the issuance of permits for the export of lobster larvae.
  • Resuming exports was itself a controversial move, reversing a ban imposed by Edhy’s predecessor, Susi Pudjiastuti, to allow Indonesia’s wild lobster populations to replenish after decades of overfishing.
  • But Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, who has taken over as interim fisheries minister, says there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the program and that it could soon continue, following an evaluation.

JAKARTA — The arrest of Indonesia’s fisheries minister on bribery charges has prompted a freeze on exports of lobster larvae, but a top official has indicated this is unlikely to be permanent, despite being at the heart of the ongoing corruption investigation.

Minister Edhy Prabowo was one of 17 people detained on Nov. 25 by agents from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) on allegations of bribery related to the issuance of export permits. The fisheries ministry announced a suspension of lobster larvae exports as of Nov. 26, and the following day it announced that Edhy had resigned as minister. Edhy was minister for about a year, and the lobster export policy was the only meaningful regulation issued during this time.

His replacement in the interim is Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment. In a statement published Nov. 28, Luhut said he had ordered an evaluation of the lobster export program, but added that fundamentally there was “nothing wrong” with the policy.

“If we see everything is good, we’ll continue it because this gives benefits to the fishers along the southern coasts,” Luhut said.

Lobster larvae seized from a failed smuggling attempt. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

The KPK has charged Edhy and six others, including two of his aides, Andreau Pribadi Misanta and Safri, with various counts of corruption. Two of the four others have been identified as Siswadi, an official with the freight-forwarding company PT Aero Citra Kargo (ACK), and Suharjito, the founder and president of PT Dua Putra Perkasa Pratama (DPPP), one of the companies awarded a permit to export lobster larvae.

The KPK alleges that Andreau was responsible for the decision to appoint ACK as the sole freight forwarder for the lobster exports, a position that the company allegedly exploited to inflate its freight prices. According to the KPK, Ahmad Bahtiar, a co-owner of ACK, wired 3.4 billion rupiah ($243,000) to Edhy via Ainul Faqih, an assistant to the minister’s wife. Ainul has also been charged, while Edhy’s wife, Iis Rosita Dewi, and Bahtiar have not. Edhy and his wife allegedly used the money to buy luxury goods during a working visit to Hawaiʻi; they were arrested upon their return at the airport in Jakarta, with KPK agents seizing the items, including a Rolex watch and Louis Vuitton shoes, as evidence.

The KPK also alleges that Suharjito of DPPP bribed the others in exchange for a permit to export lobster larvae. According to the KPK, the company has to date exported 10 shipments of wild-caught lobster larvae via ACK.

The lobster export issue is a hugely controversial one. Susi Pudjiastuti, the former fisheries minister, instated a ban on larvae exports 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 a plan to end the ban in December 2019, saying he wanted to cater to small fishers who depended on export markets. He also said Susi’s ban had failed to tackle the illegal lobster market.

In May this year, he lifted the ban, allowing exports to resume. But 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.

In 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.

To date, the fisheries ministry has granted export permits to 65 companies. One of them is PT Agro Industry Nasional, owned by a foundation under Prabowo’s defense ministry, Tempo has uncovered.

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 the wild-caught larvae directly from the fishers — in some cases not paying in full — and not investing in aquaculture farms.

The Office of the Indonesian Ombudsman, a government watchdog, and the business competition regulator have each launched their own investigations into the lobster larvae export policy in the wake of Edhy’s arrest.

Edhy Prabowo, the former fisheries minister, was arrested on Nov. 25 upon his return from Hawaiʻi, where it was alleged he and his wife had indulged in a luxury shopping spree with bribe money. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

“The people that benefit from this policy are only the exporters, and the one that benefits the most is the export destination of these lobsters, which is Vietnam,” Masnu’ah, secretary-general of the Sisterhood of Indonesian Fisherwomen (PPNI), said in a statement received by Mongabay.

Lobster larvae from Indonesia are typically sold to buyers in Vietnam, Singapore and China, where they can be raised and sold when mature at much higher prices. Edhy’s plan to resume exports called for harvesting up to 140 million lobster larvae per year from the wild, with 70% 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 lobster 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.

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.

“How long will Indonesia have to be dependent on lobster exports without putting much effort into cultivating them independently and based on our maritime people?” Masnu’ah said.

Susan Herawati, secretary-general of the Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), has called on the KPK to also investigate the other licensed exporters. According to KIARA, nine other companies not yet publicly identified by the KPK have shipped out lobster larvae since exports were allowed to resume. It named them as CV Setia Widara, UD Samudera Java, CV Nusantara Berseri, PT Aquatic SSLautan Rejeki, PT Royal Samudera Nusantara, PT Indotama Putra Wahana, PT Tania Asia Marina, PT Indotama Putra Wahana and PT Nusa Tenggara Budidaya.

Experts calculate that under the terms of the new export framework, the first exports out should only have been possible early next year at the soonest — and certainly not within a month of the ban being lifted, as has been the case. That’s because the fisheries ministry required exporters to demonstrate a “sustainable harvest” from their lobster farms. They also had to release 2% of their harvest back into the wild.

“The KPK must not stop here. It needs to expand the investigation further so that the public can understand the full extent of this case,” Susan said.

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