The demolition and sinking of a pirate fishing ship by the Indonesian Navy at the Pangandaran Sea, West Java. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/ Donal Husni

Feisty fisheries and maritime minister Susi Pudjiastuti may have earned a reputation for blowing up hundreds of foreign fishing boats caught intruding in Indonesian waters, but with the national catch now again on the rise she is going one step further with plans to ban all exports of frozen fish.

Curled up in a chair in her official residence, the barefoot minister told Asia Times she was anxious to add more value to marine products, in line with broader efforts to boost manufacturing and improve sluggish economic growth.

Fishery exports in fact have risen by 7% to US$3.9 billion in the past two years, but more startling is the way Indonesia’s domestic fish consumption has soared by a whopping two million tons.

One Japanese processing company is already moving its base of operations from Thailand to Indonesia as the ban takes a 30% bite out of Thai seafood exports, an indication of where most of that country’s actual catch comes from.

Pudjiastuti also wants to turn 12 ports, from Merauke in far southeast Papua to Sabang in northwest Aceh, into processing points for direct export to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Pulau, Japan and Australia.

Indonesian Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti speaks at the World Economic Forum held in Jakarta on April 20, 2015. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

But all that requires intra-government cooperation, and in Indonesia – where bureaucratic reform is still a work in progress – involving more than one ministry in a project is often a recipe for stagnation or outright failure.

“It’s like a book. The first chapter was about destruction and she did that brilliantly,” says former fisheries minister Sarwono Kusumaadmadja. “The second chapter is about reconstruction and she is finding that to be whole new ball game.”

Kusumaadmadja initially served as Pudjiastuti’s policy adviser, but he says she has now forgotten how to listen – just as she has taken to skipping Cabinet meetings in a show of frustration over the obstacles that stand in her way.

President Joko Widodo can hardly fire his most popular minister. But he may have been tempted by fears that her rules on environmentally-friendly nets – now on hold – were alienating the country’s four million small-scale coastal fishermen.

Out in deeper waters, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found that apart from the damage done to marine habitats, anywhere up to 40% of the fish caught in heavy trawl nets has little or no market value.

Pudjiastuti says she is still under pressure from the same politically-wired businessmen who previously benefited from the plundering of the nation’s resources, worried that her work could be undone by a new administration.

Unsustainable fishing practices threaten Indonesia’s seas. Photo: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

What a raspy-voiced, chain-smoking former fish trader with barely a high school education has achieved is stunning by any yardstick, but it’s almost beyond belief in a country where the elite always seems to prevail.

Up until she imposed a moratorium in 2014, more than 1,300 foreign fishing vessels, grouped under about 10 joint ventures with mostly Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese companies, were registered to operate in Indonesian waters.

But many resorted to subterfuge to double down on that number, as few landed their catch at domestic ports as they were contractually bound. Then, as many as 10,000 other foreign boats were illegally fishing inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on any given day.

Successive governments ignored the economic and social impacts. Not only were 115 fish canneries closed between 2003 and 2013, but poor coastal households sustained by the fishing industry dropped from 1.6 million to 800,000 over the same time period.

Now, 317 destroyed boats later and with another 191 on death row, there are nearly no foreign boats fishing legally in Indonesian waters, and the number of poachers is down to an estimated 500, most of them operating on the fringes of the national EEZ.

“Transnational organized fisheries crime has been destroying our oceans, mocking our sovereignty and abusing humans for decades,” Pudjiastuti said in a recent speech, pointing to the slave labor often used on foreign fishing boats in Indonesian waters.

Small-scale fishing boats float with Mount Agung, an active volcano on the resort island of Bali, in the background. Photo: Antara Foto/Ahmad Subaidi/via Reuters

Indonesia has about 5,600 of its own 30-ton-plus fishing boats, 700 of which were added to the fleet last year alone as domestic investors responded to the revival of fish stocks and less crowded seas.

Pudjiastuti, however, can’t claim ultimate victory yet. She acknowledges 40%-50% of the officially estimated 6.5 million tons of “Indonesian citizen fish” caught each year is still being surreptitiously transferred to foreign mother ships lurking outside the EEZ.

The minister has sought to mitigate mid-ocean transshipment by restricting local mother ships to 200 tons; she believes the total catch could be a million tons higher — still well short, however, of the 12.5 million tons that is seen to be sustainable.

Even with improved air surveillance and required on-board transponders, guarding 97,000 kilometers of sea boundary is a challenge beyond the capabilities of Indonesia’s tiny fleet of 100 navy, police and fisheries patrol craft

Even with improved air surveillance and required on-board transponders, guarding 97,000 kilometers of sea boundary is a challenge beyond the capabilities of Indonesia’s tiny fleet of 100 navy, police and fisheries patrol craft.

The minister says since Widodo made a well-publicized visit to the Natuna islands last June, Chinese fishing boats and their heavily-armed Coast Guard escorts appear to have retreated from intrusions into Indonesia’s EEZ.

She believes shaming a big power is the only way to stop it. But in Indonesia’s case that may also stem from the fact that the dispute involves maritime resources and not the actual ownership of islands and atolls, which Beijing takes much more seriously.

The Indonesian navy was brought in at the time of the presidential visit to act as a greater deterrent than the small fisheries protection vessels that normally patrol what Indonesia now calls the North Natuna Sea.

But with a shortage of ocean-going tankers, and no specialized fuel storage facilities for warships on the Natunas, Pudjiastuti says the corvettes and fast-patrol craft can only stay on station for a limited period before having to return to port in the Riau islands far to the south.