Crackdown on illegal fishing has Indonesian fisheries bouncing back

Indonesia has made progress in its fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) practices in its waters in the last three years, but it still has work to do, according to Her Excellency Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia, Susi Pudjiastuti.

At the sixth European Tuna Conference in Brussels, held on the eve of Seafood Expo Global, Pudjiastuti shared her experiences of attempting to get the Indonesian seafood industry back on track after decades of mismanagement, in which overfishing by foreign vessels, including many illegal operators, had pushed its fisheries to the brink of collapse.  

Pudjiastuti was appointed to the ministerial role two years ago, and she knew that from the outset that she faced a major problem in trying to return her country’s fisheries to their former glory. From her previous experience as a seafood exporter to Japan (1996-2004), she was well aware that coastal catches were in steep decline and that the landings by many coastal fleets had become virtually nonexistent. She made it her top priority to implement a major reform of the country’s fisheries management – a plan that was approved by President Joko Widodo.

“The mission of the new government of Indonesia has two parts: Firstly, to build Indonesia as center of maritime economics regionally and as a global player; the second is to put our nation’s future in the oceans,” she said.

According to her predecessor’s data, which she could access upon becoming minister of fisheries, between 2003 and 2013, the number of fishing families halved from 1.6 million to 800,000. At the same time, 115 seafood exporters were lost that had been mainly trading wild catches.

Also in 2004, Indonesia began nationalizing foreign fishing vessels, making it legally possible for them to catch in Indonesian waters, although the minister pointed out that illegal fishing by foreign vessels had been taking place for several decades prior to this change and was the main cause for the collapse of many local seafood companies and the loss of billions of dollars in export revenue.

Furthermore, as a consequence of widespread duplication of the 1,300 licenses that had been granted to foreign fishing vessels, it was estimated that more than 10,000 overseas vessels were actually operating in Indonesian waters.

“That’s what made the fish stocks decrease really badly. My home town used to produce 30 tons of fish and shrimp per day, but this went down to just 100 to 200 kg. That was in the high season, while in the low season the catch was almost nothing,” said Pudjiastuti. “Everywhere in northern Java was the same – overfishing – because more than 10,000 foreign fishing vessels had been fishing in our waters.”

Pudjiastuti issued two important decrees to evaluate the state of the industry. The first was a moratorium on new licenses being granted to ex-foreign fishing vessels; the other was to ban at-sea transshipment in Indonesian territorial waters, which can be used as a cover for illegal exports. 

While some success has been achieved, she said, combatting IUU still needs “lots of restructuring and reforming,” including tougher law enforcement measures. 

Nevertheless, the minister highlighted that the biomass in Indonesian waters has already increased 240 percent and that the total catch has increased from 4.5 million metric tons (MT) to 6.6 MT. Furthermore, its current maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is 9.9 million MT and through the ministry’s analysis is forecast to reach 11 million MT in 2018.

“There has been a very clear recovery, but that was because it wasn’t too late.” 

Today, following some of the regulatory reform, fishing in Indonesia can only be conducted by Indonesian vessels, while seafood processing and manufacturing is open to foreign investors.

“We want to make sure our resources are protected and only exploited to sustainable levels. Business and sustainability has to come along together," she said. “Some organizations say what we have done is destructive to the industry, but actually no. For example, our skipjack imports are much less now. That’s another sign that our fish are coming back and being fished by local fishermen and the local industry is also coming back.”

Tuna fishermen in are now catching 20 kg fish just two miles from the islands. Indeed, the landed sizes of all species have increased, she said.

“All those fish that have been gone for the last 20 years are coming back," she said.

And yet, every week 10 to 15 foreign vessels are still fishing in Indonesian waters, she said. Another struggle is the destruction of reefs by local fishermen using dynamite to supply the live fish trade.

There are many forms of IUU, she said, emphasizing that it had “become a transnational, organized crime,” that also involved the smuggling of drugs, arms and endangered species.

“It is time for all of us to call IUU fishing a very serious crime. The destruction of fish stocks in one country will always affect other countries – one world, one ocean," Pudjiastuti said. “This multi-billion dollar business has to sustain and make sure that the next generations will still have tuna."

Pudjiastuti said she hoped Indonesia proved a successful example of fisheries reform for other nations.

“I hope the success that Indonesia has had over the last three years, with the strong political support of our president, will be duplicated by many other countries. Africa is trying to reform; the Pacific is doing the same," she said. "Otherwise, one day the tuna will be gone.”


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