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Indonesian lobster larvae bound for Singapore reveal role of smuggling network

  • Two recent seizures of lobster larvae shipments destined for Singapore have prompted an investigation by Indonesia into a smuggling network operating between the two countries.
  • The shipments had an estimated value of $2.2 million, and were the latest in a string of attempts to smuggle the larvae to buyers in Singapore, Vietnam and China.
  • Indonesia has banned the export of wild-caught larvae in an effort to its lobster stocks, and is encouraging the growth of the domestic lobster-farming industry.
  • Lobsters are among Indonesia’s top fisheries commodities, but the illegal exports cost the country $64 million in lost revenue in 2019 alone, according to official data.

JAKARTA/BATAM, Indonesia — Indonesian authorities are investigating a network smuggling wild-caught lobster larvae to Singapore, following the seizures of two shipments worth an estimated 33.9 billion rupiah, or about $2.2 million.

“The smuggling of lobster larvae remains rampant because there’s still such high demand for it from abroad coupled with some people who really are benefiting from the smuggling itself,” Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, the Indonesian fisheries minister, said in a statement sent to Mongabay on Sept. 28.

Authorities made the first seizure, worth Rp 30 billion ($2 million), from a boat headed from Indonesia’s Riau Islands to Singapore, about an hour away, on Aug. 28. The second shipment, worth Rp 3.9 billion ($257,000), was impounded at the Jakarta international airport on Sept. 12, also destined for Singapore.

In both cases, local smugglers appeared to be working with counterparts in Singapore, who had a “schedule” for deliveries into the city.

Lobster larvae confiscated from a failed smuggling attempt. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.
Hundreds of thousands of lobster larvae were confiscated from a foiled smuggling attempt in August. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

Exports of lobster larvae were banned in 2016 by then-fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti in an effort to conserve the declining wild population and tackle the illegal lobster market. Susi’s successor, Edhy Prabowo, lifted the ban in May 2020, but was later jailed for taking bribes in exchange for awarding export licenses to companies controlled by his cronies.

Sakti, who succeeded Edhy, reinstated the ban in June 2021. In his statement, he said confiscated lobster larvae from both shipments were released back into the sea.

While Indonesia bans lobster larvae exports, the fisheries ministry noted that Singapore still permits their import from Indonesia. Former fisheries minister Susi in 2019 also criticized Singapore for allowing deliveries of lobster larvae from Indonesia without valid export permits. Her comments came after two Singaporeans were sentenced to prison for smuggling lobster larvae from Indonesia’s Jambi province to Singapore and Vietnam.

“This needs to be investigated further, whether a particular institution collects [the lobster larvae] legally in Singapore, but for now we only have information that there were schedules for them,” said Adin Nurawaluddin, the director-general of marine and fisheries resources surveillance at the fisheries ministry.

Lobsters are among Indonesia’s top fisheries commodities, but the illegal export of larvae and baby lobsters cost the country 900 billion rupiah ($64 million) in lost revenue in 2019 alone, according to the PPATK, the national money-laundering watchdog. The larvae are typically sold to buyers in Vietnam, Singapore and China, where they can be raised into mature lobsters and sold at much higher prices.

In reinstating the export ban in 2021, Sakti also laid out efforts to develop the domestic lobster-farming industry to be more competitive with Vietnam’s. The ministry said it would advance aquaculture technology at lobster farms in several districts to improve the survival and productivity rates of the lobsters.

“The development of lobster aquaculture in Indonesia needs the support of various stakeholders in developing lobster feed, raising capital, research, and transfer of technology,” Sakti said.

An official in Bali shows lobster larvae seized from a smuggling attempt. Image by Luh de Suriyani/Mongabay Indonesia.
Indonesia has a thriving black market for lobster larvae. Image by Vinolia/Mongabay Indonesia.

On the monitoring front, the fisheries ministry has also beefed up security at the country’s international airports and at sea. In March, it deployed four speedboats to monitor the waters between the Riau Islands and Singapore, where one of the recent smuggling attempts was foiled. Sakti said his office would continue to raise awareness among fishers to discourage them from exporting lobster larvae.

“We will strongly act against any illegal activity in Indonesian waters,” Adin said. “We call on the smugglers to stop their activity because law enforcers will be ready to monitor our fisheries resources, including lobster larvae.”

If convicted, violators face up to 16 years in prison and fines of up to 3.5 billion rupiah ($230,000).

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 officially sanctioned fishing zones were overfished, while the rest were being harvested at maximum capacity.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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