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Can Indonesia Become a Fisheries Leader Again?

With the former fisheries minister jailed for corruption, Indonesia has the chance to resume a hard line on illegal fishing

indonesian fishing boats at java
Fishing boats on the shore, Java, Indonesia (Adam Cohn / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Published Oct 15, 2021 6:08 PM by China Dialogue Ocean

[By Nithin Coca]

This July, Indonesia’s former fisheries minister Edhy Prabowo was sentenced to five years in prison after a court found him guilty of accepting bribes to lift a ban on the export of lobster larvae.

The decision by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was widely praised by environmentalists and fisheries organisations. But the case remains a sign that Indonesia has fallen away from its position as an exemplar of sustainable oceans policy.

Edhy’s sentencing came a little more than two years after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo unexpectedly appointed him instead of sticking with incumbent fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti. Susi had become popular in Indonesia thanks to her hard line on illegal fishing, which included blowing up culpable vessels. Entering at the beginning of Jokowi’s second term, Edhy undid several of Susi’s policies as the president pushed for a greater focus on GDP growth over long-term sustainable practices.

“It’s the same president, but a different direction,” said Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, on the changes since Jokowi’s 2019 re-election. “We’ve had several major setbacks, and still we don’t have any progressive direction from the current government.”

Edhy was replaced by Sakti Wahyu Trenggono in December 2020, shortly after the KPK announced its case against him. The new fisheries minister has made some positive moves, but it remains to be seen if he’ll return to the more dramatic, effective and popular policies of Susi.

From sustainable management to prioritizing the economy

Indonesia has more than 17,500 islands and the ocean makes up more than three-quarters of its territory. The fisheries sector is central to the economy, providing $27 billion in gross domestic product, supporting seven million jobs, and supplying more than half of the country’s animal-based protein intake.

Despite being the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia had played a relatively small role in global fisheries and ocean policymaking. That changed when Jokowi picked Susi to be his first fisheries minister in 2014. Relatively unknown but with extensive experience of fisheries, she soon made waves globally with her decisive action on behalf of Indonesian fishers.

During her five years at the head of the ministry, Susi took a hard-handed approach, most visibly through her policy of seizing and sinking foreign vessels fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. She also made public the country’s boat-tracking data, and pushed to reduce environmentally dangerous fishing practices by small-scale fishers.

“She was willing to take on the power elite when it came to the large-scale commercial fishing industry that was detrimental to both the fishing communities and fisheries resources,” said Sally Yozell, director of the Environmental Security programme at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.

Susi proposed the lobster larvae export ban in 2016. Lobster aquaculture in countries like Vietnam and China depends on imports of larvae and juveniles. They are first caught in Indonesian waters before being transported and grown in submerged cages abroad, and then sold as adults often at a large profit.

Indonesia is one of a few countries able to export large numbers of lobster larvae, and their stocks had been depleted by exploitation prior to the ban. It was also hoped that limiting exports would encourage lobster farming domestically, providing income for coastal communities.

Along with her boat-scuttling policies, she introduced policies to stem the use of environmentally harmful fishing methods such as bottom trawl nets, which scrape the ocean floor and damage coral reef ecosystems and bottom-dwelling species. The health of fisheries duly improved, with studies showing an increase in biomass in Indonesian waters and a reduction in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Under Edhy, the boat destruction stopped, bottom trawl nets returned and data-sharing with the non-profit Global Fishing Watch (GFW) ended.

Since the departure of Susi in 2019, there have been several leadership and staff changes in the fisheries ministry, said Ko-Jung Lo, GFW’s regional manager for Asia. “The renewal of our agreement with the ministry was delayed because of these changes and, as a result, Indonesia suspended its Vessel Monitoring System data feed to our map.”

Uncertain future

Not everyone was happy about Susi’s policies. She had opponents in the capital, Jakarta, and among business interests. This, along with a shift towards more economy-minded decision-making, is believed to have led to her replacement.

“Globally, almost everyone was disappointed to see someone who was working to manage the fisheries sustainably, in a country that is the world’s second largest producer of seafood, be replaced,” said Yozell. “She was really trying to balance sustainably managing fisheries with the economic needs of the fishing industry.”

Since taking over, the current fisheries minister, Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, has shown more willingness to engage with civil society, and has been in contact with Susi, according to Arifsyah. In June, he brought back the ban on exporting lobster larvae, and the following month, he reimposed bans on destructive purse seine and bottom trawl fishing. There are concerns, though, about the ministry potentially giving licences to foreign fishing boats to operate in Indonesia.

Bustar Maitar, CEO of Indonesian NGO EcoNusa, said that reducing the number of permits given to foreign fishing boats “will surely provide larger space to small fishers”. He added: “The Indonesian native fishers therefore could catch fish in Indonesian waters.”

Also of concern is Indonesia’s Omnibus Law on Job Creation, a 1,028-page bill that became law late last year. The broadest amending of Indonesia’s legal code in decades, it modified or annulled 79 different laws that govern land use, environmental impacts, infrastructure and much more. It has the potential to speed up the implementation of environmentally harmful development projects such as ports, coal plants and land reclamation – without proper local consultation or environmental impact analysis.

“We’re concerned that the omnibus law will result in more conflicts on the ground, because the environment and coastal communities will be deprioritised,” said Arifsyah.

Despite the uncertainty at the fisheries ministry, GFW is focusing on working with local governments and organisations, especially on a challenge that Susi wasn’t able to address during her first term – managing small-scale vessels.

“Small-scale fisheries are a vital source of nutrition and income for many communities in Indonesia. Yet nearly all small-scale fishing, which makes up almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s fishing sector, is unmonitored and unreported,” said Lo. “With more affordable tracking technology and better monitoring data, we would like to support Indonesia’s small-scale fisheries sector [in] efforts to promote legal, reported and regulated fishing activity.”

Arifsyah hopes that Sakti, and President Jokowi, turn back to the model implemented under Susi, which also means playing an active role in global conferences and negotiations.

“Let’s bring back Indonesia’s leadership in the international forum,” said Arifsyah. “Share the challenges, and be proactive in commitments around saving the ocean and ending human trafficking. That is something that we hope the current minister takes forward.”

Nithin Coca is a Southeast Asia based freelance journalist who covers development, environment, and sustainability. His feature and news pieces have appeared in global media outlets including Al Jazeera, Quartz, Engadget, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Vice, and several regional publications in Asia and the United States.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.