Indonesia’s Global Maritime Nexus: Implications for Illegal Fishing

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By Kara Junttila and Courtney Weatherby: 

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing impose huge economic costs on Indonesia. To combat this challenge, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has made a much-needed connection between management of ocean resources and his country’s security through publicly endorsing a “Global Maritime Nexus” doctrine in late 2014. The new policy positions Indonesia to take a more active role in maritime security issues as the political and economic centers of gravity shift east, and signifies President Jokowi’s desire for Indonesia to play a greater role in regional leadership.

Indonesia’s position at the axis of global maritime trade should be an incredible advantage — it bridges the Indian and Pacific Oceans, touches the South China Sea and heavily-trafficked Malacca Straits, and has maritime economic boundaries with at least 10 other nations. Yet Indonesia has not been able to leverage its unique geography as it faces challenges to its control over its maritime territory.

President Jokowi has publicly stated that nine out of ten fishing boats, nearly 5,000 vessels, operating in Indonesian waters each day are there illegally, costing the Indonesian economy upwards of $24 billion a year. Unlicensed fishing vessels from neighboring countries face few real barriers in entering Indonesian oceans and spiriting large catches out of Indonesia’s economy and into foreign ports and markets.

Within one week of taking over, Jokowi’s newly appointed fisheries Minister Pudjiastuti issued a moratorium on all new fishing licenses. Jokowi and Pudjiastuti have embarked on a “shock therapy” campaign in combatting illegal fishing – blowing up and sinking unlicensed boats caught fishing in Indonesian waters from foreign nations including Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Likely for political reasons, Indonesia has notably not yet moved against poachers from China, which has the world’s largest fishing fleet and has long been active in poaching in the Natuna Islands region..

President Jokowi’s well-publicized campaign has impressed the domestic audience, made international headlines, and scared off a few illegal fishers. But what Jokowi calls “shock therapy” for the fishing industry is only a cosmetic fix. To carry out his proclaimed objectives, Jokowi must increase defense spending, acquire more ships and other maritime surveillance equipment, and follow through to form a unified coast guard to tackle the illegal fishing problem long-term.

Indonesia’s new approach has alienated some of its neighbors, who consider it a harsher than necessary response that negatively impacts their own fishing industries. While Jokowi’s strategy thus far has centered around Indonesia’s enforcement, long-term resource management relies on cooperation among ASEAN nations. Similar to piracy and territorial disputes, illegal fishing is borderless and transnational, thus requiring multilateral, collaborative solutions.

While Jokowi’s “war on illegal fishing” is addressing national concerns over dwindling resources and infringements on Indonesia’s sovereignty, it is also angering neighbors like China, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The recent scandal over the use of slave labor in the Thai fishing industry — and the Thai boats illegally registered in Indonesia — highlights the transnational challenge of fisheries management. As overfishing of local stocks drives both small and large scale fishing operations farther afield, managing and monitoring the industry has only become more difficult.  

While Indonesia recognizes that sustainable management of fisheries and marine resources has both economic and ecological benefits, enforcement remains a critical challenge. Indonesia’s small navy of about 213 ships — as many as half of which are said to be inoperative — does not have sufficient capacity to patrol and regulate Indonesia’s vast ocean territory. A 2014 law that would create a unified coast guard out of the numerous agencies that conduct maritime patrol and policing activities has not yet been implemented. The result is that many of Indonesia’s regulations on fishing have been laws in name only. Illegal fishing boats disregard Indonesian regulations designed to safeguard depleted fish stocks, threatened species, and marine protected areas. From shark finning to destructive blast fishing, illegal fishing exacerbates serious environmental challenges Indonesia already faces.

Indonesia should continue to independently build up its maritime enforcement and management capacities to enhance compliance, but it should also seek partnerships with other nations involved in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing to multiply the positive effects of Indonesia’s unilateral efforts. However challenging, cooperative steps are vital for enlisting the aid of neighboring countries that currently benefit economically from illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. A first step would be to work bilaterally with neighbors to increase information-sharing to avoid double-registration, which currently allows some fishing companies to exploit Indonesia’s fisheries with impunity. Thailand and Indonesia jointly announced the creation of a working group to address illegal fishing practices in April 2015, but cooperation will need to be refined and continued in the long-term to be effective. A lengthier but potentially more significant step would be to get cooperative fisheries management higher on the ASEAN agenda. This is an opportunity to address the driving factor behind illegal fishing—overfishing in multiple localities near neighbors’ coastlines.

While enforcement and cooperation against illegal fishing are vital steps, ultimately illegal fishing is a symptom of the region’s failure to effectively manage resources. Addressing this in the face of growing population and climate change will be difficult, but will be vital if Indonesia and others want to dial down tensions over transnational resources.

Follow Courtney WeatherbyStimson’s Southeast Asia program, and Stimson on Twitter.

Photo credit: PacificKlaus via flickr

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