Tough-Talking Minister Drives Indonesian Fishery Recovery

Indonesia’s decision to dynamite or scuttle foreign fishing vessels that encroach on its waters – 488 sunk so far during the four years of President Joko Widodo’s administration -- is having a dramatic effect on its fishery, bringing it back from disastrously low stocks, officials say.

Jokowi, as the president is known, came into power aiming to make Indonesia a world maritime axis, partly by advancing the marine and fisheries sector. His country has the world’s second-longest coastline after Canada, with 70 percent of its territory oceanic. Immediately after taking office, he implemented a policy of going after foreign vessels carrying out so-called “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU)” fishing, enforcing domestic sovereignty and deterring fishing pirates. As many as 5,000 illegal fishing vessels were in Indonesia’s waters daily.

The result has been profound, according to government statistics. Fishing stocks in Indonesian seas have nearly doubled from 6.5 million tonnes in 2016 to 12.5 million by 2017. The contribution of the fisheries sector to gross domestic product, Rp245.48 trillion (US$16.4 billion) in 2014, has increased to Rp349.4 trillion by 2017.

From January to June 2018, the volume of Indonesian fisheries exports grew by 7.21 percent to 510,050 tonnes and the value of exports grew 12.88 percent to US$2.27 billion, raising Indonesia’s fisheries trade balance to the top of the ASEAN table for the first time since Indonesia gained independence.

In 2015, Jokowi formed a fish theft eradication task force, known as Satgas 115, whose main duties included investigating violators, verifying data, improving licensing procedures and calculating losses to the state.

The person driving the campaign is the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, the Satgas 115 commander. A tough-talking leader, Pudjiastuti has repeatedly led the execution ceremonies personally of illegal vessels, including against ships from China accused of stealing fish in Natuna Waters, which sit just outside China’s controversial Nine-Dash boundary line. Despite Chinese outrage, she ignored Beijing’s formal protest to the Indonesian government.

Data from the fisheries ministry show Vietnam has lost the most vessels, with 276 submerged, followed by the Philippines with 90 and Thailand with 50. Boats from Malaysia, Thailand and Papua New Guinea have also gone to the bottom, with hundreds from neighboring countries blown up or scuttled and sunk in media-savvy ceremonies, raising tensions with Indonesia’s neighbors.

Nonetheless, Pudjiastuti has defended the policy, claiming fish stocks in Indonesia’s seas are now abundant, with rising domestic fish catches and consistently increasing exports.

"The growth of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased since we eradicated illegal fishing from 2014 until now," Pudjiastuti said in a press conference reviewing four years of Jokowi's government in Jakarta last week. The minister, previously a successful industry entrepreneur, claims that the production and quality of cultivated fish such as catfish and milkfish are increasing as well.

The progress of the fisheries sector in Indonesia, she said, is not only supported by ship sinkings but also other policies to foster sustainability, including a moratorium on foreign ships fishing in Indonesian waters, prohibition of loading and unloading in the middle of the ocean, prohibition on the use of fishing gear that damages the environment, promoting transparent marine and fisheries management by opening access to the public, and human rights regulations to protect fishermen from crimes of trafficking and slavery.

In the middle of last year, at the United Nations Our Ocean Conference (OOC), Indonesia became the first to introduce a published Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) to reveal the location and activity of its commercial fishing fleet. On 30-31 October, the country successfully hosted the OOC, which has been cited with hundreds of commitments to ensure healthy oceans.

"So our fisheries have been heading for sustainable fisheries, we are right,” said Pudjiastuti, whose education stopped at junior high school. “That's the right way to manage fish."

Although significant advances have been made, Pudjiastuti's efforts to advance the fisheries sector have not been without obstacles. Earlier this year, debate sprang up between Pudjiastuti and Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan over her policy of sinking thieving foreign fishing vessels.

Luhut, backed by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, demanded that the policy of detonating vessels stop immediately because of the din of protests from neighboring countries. Pudjiastuti refused to budge, saying she would continue to sink ships because the policy is in accordance with applicable laws giving fisheries investigators or supervisors license to burn or sink foreign-flagged vessels based on sufficient evidence.

"So, if anyone objected or felt that it (ship sinking policy) was inappropriate, of course, they should make a proposal to the president to order the minister to amend the Fisheries Law," Pudjiastuti was quoted as saying in in January.

President Jokowi has continued to support Pudjiastuti, saying the policy is central for law enforcement. The debate has led to attempts – so far unsuccessful – to reshuffle the minister.

Fish not in Indonesian diets

Although fish stocks are abundant, the level of fish consumption by Indonesian people is low. Data from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries states that Indonesians consume only around 40 kg per capita per year. This figure is far lower than, for example, two neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Malaysia, which each have 80 kg per capita per year.

The ministry claims that the level of domestic fish consumption has risen from year to year but is still far from the target of 50.8 kg per capita per year until the end of 2018. Pudjiastuti and government officials in various regions have put on a massive campaign to get the public to eat fish.

Another major, embarrassing problem is the large amount of plastic waste in Indonesia waters, which was exacerbated as a public issue earlier this year when a British diver, Rich Horner, recorded sea conditions near Nusa Penida on the resort island of Bali showing the sea choked with plastic waste. The video went viral and ignited a storm of critical comments from local and foreign citizens, over what efforts the government has made to address the issue.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a shameful record on plastic waste, with Indonesia the world’s second largest producer after China. A University of Georgia University study shows 3.22 million tonnes of plastic wastes go into the ocean surrounding the country annually, choking its beaches as well. The Philippines ranks third in the world, followed closely by Vietnam. Four of Indonesia’s rivers – Brantas, Solo, Serayu and Progo – rank among the 20 most polluted in the world.

Last April, according to the ASEAN Post, Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city. witnessed a concentration of plastic waste “so thick that locals there said it resembled an iceberg. The plastic waste problem became so drastic that the army had to be called in to assist.”

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry says plastic accounts for 14 percent of Indonesia’s waste, much of it breaking down to tiny chunks which are eaten plankton-like by fish and marine biota, in turn entering the food chain.

Governments, communities, students, and other institutions are increasingly promoting activities to clean the beach, as well as campaigning against disposing garbage in the sea. The Indonesian government has committed to reducing coastal plastic waste by 70 percent by 2025 at the UNFCCC COP 23 conference in Bonn, Germany, at the end of 2017. That goal seems far out of reach.