An Indonesian navy soldier stands before the Chinese trawler 'Hua Li-8' in Belawan, North Sumatra, which was detained for allegedly operating illegally in Indonesian waters in 2016. Photo: AFP/Abimata Hasibuan

The catch has expanded dramatically, the fish are bigger and new canneries have sprung up all around Indonesia, all apparent signs of a hale and hearty fisheries industry.

But Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti continues to fight a constant battle since she banned foreign trawlers from Indonesian waters in arguably one of the most notable achievements of Joko Widodo’s first term as president.

In an interview with Asia Times, Pudjiastuti said she believes up to 80% of the nation’s catch is still exported illegally or offloaded on to foreign, often Chinese-owned, mother ships outside its 200-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) – a transshipment practice she wants declared an international crime.

Moreover, she says only a quarter of the estimated 3,000 new 100-200 tonne fishing boats built locally in the past three years have been properly registered; the rest are painted the same color and carry duplicate names to avoid paying taxes.

There is big money involved for the 100 or so Indonesian businessmen involved, of whom about 20 own 4,500 of the 7,600 registered boats above 30 tonnes, according to the minister. Annual profits, she says, range from US$1-2 million for 30-100 tonne vessels, and $2-4 million for those in the 100-200 tonne capacity.

The result: many of the Indonesian businessmen who previously engaged in flawed joint ventures with Chinese, Thai and other large regional fishing companies to plunder their country’s maritime resources are now finding ways to do it independently.

Workers unload yellowfin tuna at a port in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, April 4, 2019. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

Despite all that, the fisheries sector’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) has risen from 7.3% to 7.9% in the past three years, growing by 5.7% per year and making Indonesia into the world’s second-biggest producer of fisheries and aquaculture, according to the 2018 European Union Fish Market Report.

Five years after the ban’s enforcement, Indonesia is now the largest producer of tuna, representing 16% of the world total, half of which is exported to the US in the form of frozen whole fish and fillets. It is a lucrative market that has grown by 130% since 2014.

After suffering through difficult early years of the ban due to a lack of fish, the North Sulawesi fishing port of Bitung, for example, is now home to 47 canneries from just a handful a few years ago, processing a large percentage of the 76,700 tonnes of canned tuna Indonesia exported in 2017.

Pudjiastuti, a 54-year-old rags-to-riches entrepreneur who parlayed her West Java seafood processing business into the world’s largest small-plane airline, says Indonesian fishermen are now catching 80-kilogram tuna, almost twice the size of several years ago.

The Chinese have predictably sought to undercut Indonesia’s actions by using satellite systems that detect water density and direct fishing fleets to biomass concentrations of mainly tuna and tuna-like species before they reach Indonesian waters.

Satellite imagery shows nearly 4,000 fishing boats and support craft around Micronesia in the Western Pacific at any one time, about 85% of them from China and Taiwan. It is a picture that raises concerns about sustainability in nearby Indonesia.

“[Pudjiastuti’s] policies have been very effective,” says one maritime analyst who tracks the movement of China’s vast fishing fleet in the Western Pacific. “They (the Chinese) are now trying to get everything before it gets into Indonesian waters.”

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

Chinese vessels often turn off their transponders or change the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) international maritime regulations require of every ship over 100 tonnes.

There are other ploys as well. On one recent day, a vessel purportedly registered in land-locked Afghanistan showed up in the midst of a Chinese fleet.

While Beijing uses its fishermen – and accompanying Coastguard and militia patrol craft – as part of its forward deployment, Indonesia is taking a leaf out of its book by adapting similar tactics in the southern reaches of the South China Sea, which China claims as part of its traditional fishing grounds.

Pudjiastuti says there are now 600 Indonesian fishing boats operating out of the Natuna islands, Indonesia’s northernmost territory, where the government is building a cold storage and fish processing facility and temporary accommodations for fishermen.

With navy vessels regularly patrolling what Indonesia has renamed as the North Natuna Sea, there are plans to deploy a tanker to refuel the fishing fleet, acquire small surveillance drones and also to extend the runway on Natuna Besar, the chain’s main island.

Chinese trawlers have generally steered clear of Indonesian waters in the past 18 months, but it is well known Pudjiastuti and chief maritime minister Luhut Panjaitan don’t get on for reasons which underline Indonesia’s many internal difficulties in dealing with China.

She remains single-minded and stubborn towards the Chinese and their fishing practices. He oversees many Chinese-funded projects in Indonesia, including the long-delayed $6 billion Jakarta-Bandung fast railway that now seems to be making some headway.

Pudjiastuti has also made enemies abroad by persisting in her policy of sinking foreign fishing boats seized poaching in Indonesian waters after learning that local surrogates of the owners were paying only $50,000 at auction to get them back.

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

Earlier in May, the Fisheries Ministry sank 51 more impounded boats, bringing the total number of those destroyed to more than 500 since the fishing ban was enforced as part of Widodo’s tough new maritime policy.

Among the latest batch to be scuttled were 38 Vietnamese-flagged vessels; in recent months, the Vietnamese coast guard has been involved in four incidents with Indonesian patrol craft inside the EEZ, leading Hanoi to issue a diplomatic protest.

A video of the latest incident circulated on social media showed a Vietnamese vessel ramming the side of an Indonesian corvette, one of several acquired from the old East German navy in the early 1990s, while rifle-toting Indonesian sailors shouted abuse.

Indonesia is the first country in the world to make public real-time data on the location of all vessels in its waters, employing the Automated Identification System and Italian-developed imagery to create an overview across three times zones stretching from Aceh to Papua.

Most of the focus of the Fisheries Ministry and separate systems used by the navy and police is on key waterways, such as the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits, the Natuna islands and the Makassar Strait and further east to Papua, where the navy is forming a third fleet based out of the old oil port of Sorong.

Sometimes the Indonesians have been caught by surprise. In a little-known incident in April 2018, a navy fast patrol craft intercepted the Chinese satellite tracking ship Yuan Wan 7 after it veered out of an international shipping lane off of the northeast island of Sulawesi.

Informed sources say the navy’s attention was drawn to the way the 21,000-tonne vessel was making erratic maneuvers inconsistent with a normal transit. No radio contact was made between the two vessels and the Yuan Wang swiftly reversed course and headed north into international waters.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Join the Conversation

1133 Comments

  1. I have been browsing on-line greater than 3 hours lately, yet I by no means discovered any fascinating article like yours. It is lovely worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all website owners and bloggers made good content material as you did, the internet can be a lot more helpful than ever before.

  2. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one nowadays..

  3. I?¦ve read several good stuff here. Certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how much effort you put to create any such great informative website.

  4. It is really a great and useful piece of info. I am satisfied that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Amazing! Your site has quite a few comment posts. How did you get all of these bloggers to look at your site I’m envious! I’m still studying all about posting articles on the net. I’m going to view pages on your website to get a better understanding how to attract more people. Thank you!

  6. Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any suggestions for novice blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

  7. Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is valuable and everything. However think about if you added some great photos or videos to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and clips, this site could undeniably be one of the greatest in its field. Very good blog!

  8. Hello would you mind stating which blog platform you’re working with? I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m having a difficult time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design and style seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique. P.S Apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

  9. Whats Taking place i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I’ve discovered It positively helpful and it has aided me out loads. I am hoping to contribute & assist different customers like its helped me. Good job.

  10. Hi there, I found your website via Google while searching for a related topic, your site came up, it looks great. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  11. Nice post. I learn something more challenging on different blogs everyday. It will always be stimulating to read content from other writers and practice a little something from their store. I’d prefer to use some with the content on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll give you a link on your web blog. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Really great information can be found on site. “Prayer is the wing wherewith the soul flies to heaven, and meditation the eye wherewith we see God.” by Ambrose of Milan.

  13. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post…

  14. I’ve been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this website. Thank you, I’ll try and check back more often. How frequently you update your web site?

  15. Thank you for sharing excellent informations. Your website is so cool. I’m impressed by the details that you have on this blog. It reveals how nicely you understand this subject. Bookmarked this web page, will come back for more articles. You, my friend, ROCK! I found just the info I already searched everywhere and just couldn’t come across. What a perfect site.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *