Indonesia Is Fighting Illegal Fishing By Blowing Up Boats
Kaboom. Photo: Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries


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Indonesia Is Fighting Illegal Fishing By Blowing Up Boats

That's one way to stop poachers.

This story originally ran on War Is Boring.

An Indonesian navy corvette fired on a Chinese fishing boat on June 17, forcing back an expedition by a dozen intruding vessels near the Natuna Islands. The Indonesian ship seized one vessel, the Qiong Dan Zhou 19038, and detained her 11 crewmembers.

While a minor incident, the frequency at which Indonesian ships now intercept—and occasionally shoot at—foreign fishing vessels is all part of a veritable war on poachers.


Since December 2014, Indonesia has sent warships to hunt illegal fishing boats, to drive them off or sink them. Most visible of all, Jakarta has adopted a sensationalist approach by blowing up 174 foreign boats as of April 2016—many of them on television.

"Whatever flag it is, the moment these ships trespass on a territory under the jurisdiction of Indonesia, we in the TNI-AL [the Indonesian navy] will not hesitate to take firm action," Vice Admiral Edi Sucipto said in a statement after the June 17 incident, according to IHS Jane's.

Indonesia has even bagged prizes that have eluded militant environmental groups.

Indonesia is a country with one of the longest combined coastlines in the world, but it does not have a substantial navy—11 destroyers, 18 corvettes, and two aging German-made submarines. The result is that Jakarta cannot halt illegal fishing, but an assertive enough approach may reduce the damage to Indonesia's environment and economy.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has claimed the presence of thousands of foreign fishing boats in Indonesian waters costs his country some $25 billion every year, although this number is likely exaggerated. A 2009 government estimate put the losses at around $2 billion annually, according to Michael de Alessi, a professor of marine conservation at the University of Washington.

That's still a lot of money, however, and blowing up poachers' boats is a practical means to warn others to stay away.


"Jokowi's Indonesia has evolved into something of an enforcer of the seas, arresting vessels that plunder not only its own fisheries but others too," Philip Jacobson wrote at conservation news site Mongabay.

The war on poaching is heavily due to Jokowi, a heavy metal fan and former governor of Jakarta who was elected to the presidency in 2014. His election was a shift for Indonesian politics, which previously saw its presidency dominated by former military officers and politicians with ties to the 31-year-long junta of Gen. Suharto.

Jokowi has described the campaign on illegal fishing as "shock therapy." He has also emphasized a "maritime-axis doctrine" aimed at building ports and growing the navy.

Susi Pudjiastuti, at right, aboard an Indonesian warship. Photo: Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

But arguably more important is Susi Pudjiastuti, the minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries whom the Financial Times described as a popular "tattoo-clad chain-smoker" with a penchant for posing with sunglasses in front of exploding fishing boats.

The Interpreter noted the pyrotechnic demonstrations are mostly for show—with dynamite added to the seized boats for visual effect. When sinking a vessel, Indonesian authorities remove the fuel and engines to avoid environmental contamination.

But the strategy has appeared to work, to an extent. Fishermen have attributed a rise in yields to a "Madam Susi effect," although critics point out that the touted economic gains are overstated due to a lack of investment in the domestic fishing industry.


"Pudjiastuti has also directed a purge of foreign-made fishing boats, which purport to have been purchased from abroad by Indonesians but often serve as fronts for foreign-controlled operations," Jacobson wrote. "Many of these ships have been linked to human trafficking."

Indonesia has even bagged prizes that have eluded militant environmental groups.

In March, Jakarta blew up the Viking, a Nigeria-flagged vessel wanted by Interpol for poaching rare Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had pursued the last of the "Bandit 6" vessels for years, and tipped off Jakarta about her presence in Indonesian waters.

"This is to serve as a deterrent to others," Pudjiastuti said. "You may go freely in the rest of the world, but once entering Indonesia, this is the consequence."

Indonesia's waters are a magnet for fishing boats from across the Western Pacific. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian boats are among the worst offenders—but the fishing trade is global and the boats can come from anywhere.

The presence of Chinese fishing boats pose a more serious problem, as Beijing has the largest navy in the region and is willing to protect its citizens with force. The Natuna Islands and their territorial waters — which extend 200 nautical miles from the coast—overlap with Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

In March 2013, the Chinese coast guard ship CCG3210 bullied an Indonesian patrol boat into surrendering the seized crewmembers of a Chinese fishing vessel—and had possibly jammed the Indonesian crew's communications gear, preventing them from radioing for help.

Beijing has aggressively expanded its military presence in the South China Sea, and is building beefy warships to enforce its maritime claims. Which indicates the poaching problem is not just the fault of criminal gangs—it's partly state sponsored.

Deterring illegal fishing backed by nation states and powerful navies will take a lot more than blowing up unarmed trawlers.