Indonesia's explosive IUU policy is working, new report says

Published on
May 21, 2018

Starting in 2014, Indonesia implemented a set of controversial policies aimed at reducing IUU fishing, especially by foreign vessels. As a result, Indonesian fisheries authorities have sunk 318 illegal fishing boats, roughly 300 of which were foreign, while curtailing fishing permits for foreign vessels and banning transfers of fish at sea.

Those policies reduced fish catches and have the potential to jump-start fishery recovery, without harming the catches or profits of local fishermen, according to a scientific study recently published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Indonesia is the world’s leading producer of tuna and the second-largest producer of marine wild-capture fish, but the country loses USD 4 billion (EUR 3.4 billion) per year in profits due to IUU fishing, according to the study.

Indonesia’s anti-IUU fishing policies included a temporary yearlong moratorium in 2014 and 2015 on vessels of foreign origin registered in Indonesia, resulting in fishing prohibitions for more than 1,100 foreign-owned vessels.

The vast majority of vessels that Indonesian authorities sank came from other countries. Nearly half – 144 – came from Vietnam, and another 76 vessels came from the Philippines, while 50 came from Malaysia. While the 2014 ban on transfers of fish remains for foreign vessels, it has since been lifted for local boats.

The new polices drove a sharp downturn in fishing: Foreign fishing fell 90 percent, while overall fishing fell 25 percent, according to the study.

Some of the reduced fishing in Indonesian waters likely ended up shifting to other areas, but not all of it, according to Ren Cabral, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

“We expect that some fishing vessels went elsewhere and we also expect a reduction in the number of active fishing boats and fishing instances,” Cabral told SeafoodSource. “When we visited Indonesia, we saw several inactive foreign-owned and foreign-made vessels in Indonesian waters, meaning those boats were unable to fish because of the policies.” 

In many developing countries in the tropics, people depend on fishing for both food and livelihoods, making it difficult for authorities to reduce fishing pressure through fishery reforms. The cost of reforms to both catches and profits are immediate – and socially and politically unpopular – while the benefits are distant.

But sharply reducing foreign IUU fishing can reduce total catches and allow fisheries to recover, with little to no cost to local fishermen. 

The study authors calculated that preventing overfishing in Indonesia by using typical management reforms would have required reducing catches 15 percent – with a corresponding 16 percent reduction in profits. In contrast, curtailing IUU fishing has the potential to generate significant benefits for local fishermen, potentially increasing catches by 14 percent and profits 12 percent.

Countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones cover roughly 42 percent of the ocean; 90 percent of fish is caught inside EEZs. Those zones – the areas within 200 miles of shore – were formally recognized in 1982 through the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea and are crucial to improving fisheries management, according to Cabral.

“We know that without control over access – or property rights – people will race to fish, leading to the tragedy of the commons,” Cabral said.

To evaluate the impact of Indonesia’s policies, the researchers tracked illegal fishing in near real-time using automatic identification system (AIS) data from Global Fishing Watch, a nonprofit group that helps monitor commercial fishing, along with nighttime satellite images.

“We can now directly assess – like in the case of Indonesia’s IUU policies – whether policies are achieving their intended effect, as well as observe any resulting changes in fishing behavior,” Juan Mayorga, a marine data scientist at UC Santa Barbara’s Sustainable Fisheries Group, said in a statement.

Roughly 20 percent of global fish are caught illegally. In some regions, such as the western and central Pacific and the eastern central Atlantic, illegal fishing may constitute more than 30 percent of the total catch.

Like Indonesia, countries in those regions could benefit from tougher regulations against IUU fishing, according to the study. For instance, The Gambia targeted both illegal fishing and corruption in its fisheries department in 2015, and has had similar success to Indonesia.

Some countries have taken steps to aggressively combat illegal fishing, by apprehending violators and imposing hefty fines, but not all countries are able to do so.

“It takes lots of political will to do what Indonesia is doing,” Cabral said. “Sinking foreign boats is politically difficult.”

Photo courtesy of Indonesia IUU Task Force

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