Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti has overseen the demolition of foreign fishing boats caught poaching in Indonesian waters. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum/(Donal Husni

Indonesia’s most popular Cabinet member, Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, is willing to serve a second term if President Joko Widodo wins re-election next year – but on the condition that he retains the ban on foreign trawlers fishing in Indonesian waters.

Pudjiastuti is nothing if she is not stubborn, but that may be what it takes to prevent powerful Indonesian rent-seekers from being allowed to return to their decades-long practice of decimating their own country’s maritime resources.

More than 45% of the 1,100 foreign fishing boats previously permitted in Indonesian waters were registered under so-called foreign investment companies owned by a well-connected businessman and two politicians belonging to President Joko Widodo’s ruling coalition, according to Pudjiastuti.

Most of their catch was shipped back to ports in neighbouring countries, as were those of the 10,000 other foreign boats that were estimated to be fishing illegally in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) at any one time, costing the country as much as US$20 billion a year in lost revenues, say a range of senior officials.

Indonesian fishing boats are still being paid to off-load their catch on to foreign mother ships waiting beyond the 200-mile EEZ, but officials estimate that fish stocks have increased significantly since Pudjiastuti slapped a ban on foreign fishing boats in one of her first acts as minister in October 2014.

The minister estimates the domestic maritime catch increased from six million tons in 2016 to nine million tons last year, still within what is considered to be the sustainable limit of 12.5 million tons even with some leeway for under-reporting.

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

Indonesia’s marine fishing fleet comprises about 506,000 vessels, most of them outrigger-type craft operating within a few miles of the coast which account for an estimated 40-50% of the total catch.

About 50,000 vessels are in the 20-30-ton range and stay within the 12-mile limit, leaving only 10,000 larger boats of 30 tons or more to range further afield and target tuna in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans.

It has been Pudjiastuti’s determination to face down vested interests and continue with the policy of blowing up captured intruding trawlers that have endeared her to an Indonesian public unused to seeing officials – and a woman at that – score one for the good guys.

Although it might be self-effacing rhetoric, she insists the policy is not hers but rather part of a legal process authorized under the 2004 Fisheries Law, whose provisions were never rigorously enforced under the previous Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration.

Conservationists at the time said Indonesia was at a crucial juncture in its fisheries management, given ample evidence that fisheries resources would continue to decline and that over-fishing was a growing problem.

“Without government intervention, fisheries, like other natural resources, are subject to open access and therefore over-exploitation,” wrote maritime policy expert Jason Patlis back in 2009 in urging the government to “aggressively improve” its regulatory and enforcement mechanisms.

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

He could not have foreseen just how aggressive it would become. Indonesian courts have so far ordered the sinking of 363 foreign fishing boats — with another 60 facing the same fate — since the Widodo government introduced measures to save the country’s maritime resources from rampant poaching.

But Pudjiastuti has had to withstand efforts from all quarters to reverse that policy, seeing even the smallest concession as the thin end of the wedge. “Right now, I am being disturbed by my colleagues,” she told Asia Times. “They disagree with so many things and try to do things behind my back.”

When Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, the president’s senior political adviser and her immediate superior, sought to put an end to the boat-sinking policy in January, Pudjiastuti went over his head and complained directly to Widodo.

Panjaitan and Vice President Jusuf Kalla both claimed the policy was harming relations with neighbouring countries and said that instead of being destroyed the boats should be auctioned off or sold to local companies to boost fish production and improve maritime exports.

But as he has done before, the president stuck with Pudjiastuti. “Sinking the fishing boats is a form of law enforcement,” he said, calling it a policy that is in the best interests of the people. “We’re trying to show that we do not tolerate illegal fishing.”

Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti rows a paddleboard at Sunda Strait near Cilegon, Indonesia March 3, 2018. Antara Foto via Reuters/Wahyu Putro 

That and preserving Indonesia’s sovereignty may be two reasons, but Pudjiastuti says most of the captured fishing boats are trawlers often manned by more than 20 crewmen, which are not permitted to operate in Indonesian waters anyway.

The minister says her main mission during a second term would be to attract more investment in processing and allow exports from regional ports to be sent direct to regional markets – a move that she believes would prevent the rent-seekers from making a comeback.

Despite its size and vast maritime resources, Indonesia has never figured among the world’s top 10 seafood-exporting countries, lagging far behind regional competitors China, Thailand and Vietnam — the three countries who previously had the most fishing boats operating around Indonesia’s shores.

“Susi still wants to promote increased yield at the same time she talks about more sustainable fisheries,” says one fisheries expert. “Those are two goals that are often incompatible, but increasing revenue per catch through processing is certainly one way to bridge the two goals.”

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