It was no April Fool’s Day joke when on April 1 Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries sent in whole and in pieces 81 illegal fishing boats to the bottom of the sea simultaneously at 12 locations across the country.
The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, in another show of force to reassert her ministry’s tough stance to combat illegal fishing, led the sinking and blowing up of the vessels, 75 of which were foreign, from Ambon province which is close to the Arafura Sea on the eastern part of the country.
“This is to tell the people, that there was a time when thousands of foreign vessels came to steal our fish and now they know that Indonesia can actually combat such a crime,” she said in a statement after leading the operation that stretched to the Natuna Islands on Indonesia’s northernmost maritime frontier and borders the South China Sea, where most of the ships – 29 – were destroyed.
The Natuna Sea and the Arafura Sea are both fertile fishing grounds and often infested with illegal fishing boats.
Yunus Husein, the deputy head of Task Force 115, which was set up to combat illegal fishing, said the eastern waters of Indonesia is still prone to risks of illegal fishing and by choosing to lead the operation from Ambon, the ministry wanted to reaffirm that illegal fishing should no longer happen in the Arafura Sea. It also aimed to show support to the Indonesian Navy’s Eastern Fleet and other law enforcement agencies in the eastern region to take firm measures in deterring poachers.
“We hope Sino serves as a symbol of our victory against fish plunderer, after years of defeat, especially in eastern Indonesia,” Susi said, referring to the name of the two ships, Sino 26 and Sino 35 that were sunk in Tihlepuai waters off Morella village in Ambon.
The ships’ names indicated a relation to China, and Yunus said the Indonesian-flagged ships were owned by an Indonesian company with a Chinese investor.
To date, Indonesia has sunk 317 illegal fishing vessels since October 2014 and most of them were from neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
Since January to March 21, the ministry’s patrol boats have apprehended 40 illegal fishing boats, which included 36 boats from Vietnam while the rest were from The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Poaching fish in Indonesia’s waters is a crime punishable by maximum six years in prison and a maximum fine of 20 billion rupiah.
“Illegal fishing is rampant in Indonesian waters because we have not been able to tap this potential resource,” said Akhmad Solihin, a lecturer at Bogor Agricultural University’s School of Fisheries and Maritime Sciences.
While he agrees that blowing up illegal boats could create a deterrent effect to poachers, he urged the government to improve the investigation procedures for foreign boats to ensure that the legal process is conducted fairly and especially to provide proper translators for foreign seamen.
“I think the best solution to combat illegal fishing is by forging bilateral relations with fishing poachers’ countries of origin, to form agreement that those countries’ government could prosecute the fishing companies or fishing boats’ owners to pay compensation to Indonesia for poaching in our waters,” Akhmad said.
Meanwhile, Abdul Halim, the director for Jakarta-based advocacy group Maritime Studies Center for Humanity, said that while Susi seemed to be gaining grounds in combatting foreign poachers, local fishermen were not able to yield much from the abundant fishing resources.
This is due to due to a ministerial regulation that prohibits the use of trawling nets and dragnet fishing and bombs that damage coral reefs within Indonesian waters.
“There is no solution on what the fishermen can use to catch fish in place of the prohibited nets,” Abdul said.
Viva Yoga Mauladi, a lawmaker from a House of Representatives’ commission that oversees maritime affairs called on the government to review the regulation due to widespread refusal from various fishing community. In place of the prohibited nets, the regulation stipulates that fishermen can only use the ecosystem-friendly gill net.
After visiting a coastal community in Lamongan, East Java on March 31, he said that fishermen in Lamongan refused to use the recommended gill net.
“They have been using trawling nets and dragnet fish for a long time and they don’t want to use the gill net as it only incurs losses for them,” Viva said.