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Easing of crackdown sees Vietnam boats encroach into Indonesian waters

  • Illegal fishing by Vietnamese vessels in Indonesian waters has ramped up this year, with locals and fisheries observes blaming a dearth of patrols by Indonesian authorities.
  • Vessel-tracking data and satellite imagery showed more than 100 instances of Vietnamese fishing vessels in the North Natuna Sea, inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), between February and April.
  • At the same time, enforcement against illegal fishing appears to have eased, with no Vietnamese vessels seized in Indonesian waters so far this year, compared to 54 between 2020 and 2021, and 234 between 2015 and 2019.
  • Fishers and observers say these incursions threaten fish stocks that had recovered during the period of strict enforcement, and have called on the government to boost patrols.

BATAM/JAKARTA, Indonesia — A recent spate of illegal fishing incursions into Indonesian waters by Vietnamese vessels has sparked calls from local fishers and environmental activists for increased monitoring and security.

Dozens of Vietnamese fishing boats have been detected throughout 2022 in the waters north of the Natuna Islands, according to reports and vessel-tracking intelligence. Known as the North Natuna Sea, this stretch of water lies within Indonesia’s economic exclusive zone (EEZ) and borders Vietnam’s EEZ.

The Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI), a Jakarta-based think tank, reported 34 transmissions from AIS trackers belonging to Vietnamese vessels, and 107 satellite imagery sightings of more boats from the country, in the North Natuna Sea between February and April 2022.

Indonesian fishers in the Natunas have also complained to local authorities of multiple encounters with Vietnam-flagged boats fishing in the area.

“These foreign vessels are disrupting the fishing grounds of Natuna’s fishers; it’s estimated that our catches have dropped by about 50%,” Hendri, the head of the Natuna Fisher Alliance, told Mongabay Indonesia on April 26.

A Vietnamese boat seized by Indonesian authorities in 2021. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Coast Guard.
Natuna fishers at sea. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Hendri said some of the Vietnamese boats would operate as close as 38 nautical miles (70 kilometers) from the main island of Natuna during daylight hours. “When they’re already in our front yard, how come we’re not chasing them away or acting upon it?” he said.

Indonesia’s fisheries ministry seized 603 foreign vessels for illegal fishing between 2015 and 2019, of which 234 flew the Vietnam flag. Over the next two years, however, Indonesia only seized 54 Vietnamese boats, and none so far this year — despite the clear evidence of incursions and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing practices by those vessels, the IOJI noted.

The IOJI attributes the increase in incursions in part to fish stocks being overexploited in Vietnam’s waters. The country’s capture fisheries production expanded fivefold between 1981 and 2009, while its fleet capable of reaching the borders of its territorial waters expanded to about 130,000 fishing vessels by 2011. Vietnamese boats have also been found encroaching into the waters of other neighboring countries, including Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and China.

“The IUUF done by Vietnam-flagged vessels in the official waters of Natuna is a problem that has dragged on and that hasn’t been resolved by either the Indonesian government or the Vietnamese government,” Imam Prakoso, a researcher at the IOJI, told Mongabay.

He said some of the key reasons include a dearth of marine patrols in the region by Indonesian authorities, the relative absence of Indonesia-flagged fishing and commercial vessels there, and an ongoing dispute about the borders of each country’s EEZ. Imam added that the north wind also helped Vietnamese vessels reach as far as the Natuna waters, which are still rich in marine resources.

These boats typically deploy single and pair trawl nets, which are known to be indiscriminate and destructive to coral reefs; pair trawling is banned by the Indonesian government. According to the IOJI, the Vietnamese fishers target both commercially valuable fish, competing directly with the Natuna fishers, and species that can be ground up for fishmeal to supply the country’s lobster aquaculture industry. Vietnam is one of the world’s largest producers of cultivated lobsters.

“That has created a conflict at sea between Natuna’s fishers and Vietnam’s fishers in the northern Natuna sea,” Imam said, adding that Natuna fishers’ boats are much smaller in size than those of the Vietnamese fishers.

Natuna fishing boats. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Imam said there was a brief period when incursions and illegal fishing by Vietnamese vessels in the Natuna waters was almost nonexistent. This occurred between 2014 and 2019, when Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, imposed and enforced a strict ban on foreign vessels, and boosted patrols in the Natuna waters.

Susi’s tough, no-nonsense approach to tackle IUU fishing, including blowing up boats that had been seized, paid off, according to a 2018 study, with foreign fishing activity in Indonesian waters declining by more than 90% since 2014. Fish stocks also reportedly recovered to 12.5 million tons in 2017 from 7.3 million tons in 2013.

Susi left office at the end of President Joko Widodo’s first term, in 2019, and the fisheries ministers since then have been far more permissive about foreign vessels fishing in Indonesian waters. (Susi’s immediate successor, Edhy Prabowo, was arrested for corruption after just over a year in office and sentenced to five years in prison.)

“Currently, during President Joko Widodo’s second term, the patrolling intensity and synergy seems to have declined due to various limitations, such as lack of patrolling vessels and budget,” Imam said.

The fisheries ministry said it has received the reports from the Natuna fishers about the presence of the Vietnamese boats and has deployed patrol boats to the area. It added that the fishing vessels had left by the time the patrol boats got there.

“Officials in Jakarta will only take action if it goes viral [on social media],” said Hendri from the fishers’ alliance. “[The Vietnamese boats] will be gone, but they will return in short. It’s always like that. We’re tired of having to report it.”

The Natuna fishers and marine observers have called on the government to beef up monitoring and security measures in the Natuna waters, and to engage local fishers in those efforts.

In 2020, the government made a big show of deploying fishing vessels from the north coast of Java, some 1,200 km (750 mi) away, as an unofficial naval presence in the Natuna waters. This stunt prompted widespread criticism of both the long-standing lack of government support for Natuna’s local fishers, and the potential for a fresh dispute if the better-equipped Java fishers were perceived to benefit at the expense of the Natuna fishers.

Imam from the IOJI also called on the Vietnamese government to do its part in preventing IUU fishing by its vessels in Indonesian waters.

“Such efforts have not been showcased seriously by the Vietnamese government, and this problem has dragged on and harmed the security and the health of Indonesia’s ocean,” he said.

Deckhands from a Vietnamese vessel found fishing illegally in Indonesian waters are detained by Indonesian authorities. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

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