Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Indonesia’s fishy furore

A policy of catching and destroying poachers’ boats has made a celebrity of the Fisheries Minister.

Panah Hijau, in Medan Marelan, North Sumatra (Photo: Teguh Harahap)
Panah Hijau, in Medan Marelan, North Sumatra (Photo: Teguh Harahap)
Published 4 Apr 2018 

“Indonesia’s fishing industry was broken for many years,” says Amhar, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name. “Then Susi came along and she fought for us.”

Amhar is a fisherman with a small boat he runs out of Panah Hijau, a fishing community in Medan, North Sumatra. The “Susi” he refers to is Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s colourful Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister who enjoys the highest approval rating of all minsters in the cabinet.

Known for her no-nonsense style and flamboyant use of social media, Pudjiastuti has made a name for herself since taking office in 2014, despite having dropped-out of school at the age of 16 with no qualifications. 

One of the main reasons for Pudjiastuti’s popularity with fishermen in Medan is her policy of exploding fishing boats caught poaching aquatic life in Indonesian waters. Since 2015, Pudjiastuti has ordered the destruction of 380 boats. 

In an interview with the BBC in October 2017, Pudjiastuti explained her rationale:

We needed a deterrent effect, we have such a huge area to watch, it’s impossible to really monitor it ... I don’t think anyone is happy to see their boat being blown up. It’s shock and awe and a scare tactic.

The fishing industry is big business in Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world and the country with the longest coastline and largest water territory in Southeast Asia. In 2012 Indonesia’s fishery production was almost 9 million tonnes, and in 2013 the total value of its exported fishing commodities was US$3.8 million.

The fishing industry alone in Indonesia accounts for 3% of the country’s GDP, according to statistics compiled by the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the United Nations.

Pudjiastuti insists that fish stocks are now rising as a result of her actions, but the policy may soon be set to change. Maritime Affairs Coordinating Minister Luhut Pandjaitan and Vice President of Indonesia Jusuf Kalla have called for the practice of destroying boats to be stopped.

Pandjaitan and Kalla claimed that destroying boats could cause a rift in diplomatic relations with other countries (particularly China), and that, incorrectly, it was an infringement of the Fisheries Law. The pair were immediately accused of having spurious motives. 

According to the fishermen of Panah Hijau, the ministers are looking to fill government coffers by charging foreign boats to enter Indonesian waters. But the fishermen hold out little hope that any of this money will trickle down to an already sluggish local fishing industry.

Ahmad Amsal is another local fisherman, and is out on his boat from 5am to 5pm every day. Three years ago, even small fishing boats could expect to catch 100 kilos of fish in a single day. Now the men say they are lucky to get 20 kilos. Amsal said:

There is a problem in Indonesia with illegal fishing and overfishing. If Indonesia doesn’t sink illegal boats then there will be a sharp rise in fish thefts. They are stealing our fish and trespassing in our waters, so it is right that the boats are sunk. We support Susi and her wisdom.

While the foreign boats may pay to use Indonesia’s waters through official channels in the future, Amsal worries they will also be making off with valuable fish stock. “The money won’t come back to this country,” he explains. “If it does, it will only be the minsters that benefit and the fishermen will lose out.”

Amid the furore, Pudjiastuti has said she has no plans to stop sinking ships. She cited the Fisheries Law No. 45 from 2009, which permits the blowing up of foreign boats that venture into Indonesian waters, and took to YouTube in January to press her case:

If anyone has any problems or feels that it’s inappropriate, surely they can make a suggestion to the president to instruct his minister to change the Fisheries Law and remove the ship-sinking mandate.

The fishermen view Pudjiastuti as something of a celebrity, and praise her support of artisanal fishermen, who make up about 90% of the Indonesian fishing industry. Amsal has pictures and videos on his phone of a meeting in North Sumatra between local fishermen and Pudjiastuti, when she came to speak about Permen KP 71, the law that prohibits illegal fishing in Indonesia.

Local fisherman support the policy of destroying boats not only because they regard it as fair punishment for poaching, but also for what might appear a surprising benefit to their business.

“All fishermen know that fish don’t like just swimming along the flat sea floor,” Amsal said.

When Susi sinks the illegal boats, the wrecks create a haven for the fish and act as a breeding ground, increasing our stock.

With so much support for Pudjiastuti from local fishermen, change to the present policy might be harder than imagined for the government.

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