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Indonesia’s Dynamite Deterrent to Fish Poaching

President Joko Widodo will risk angering his neighbors to protect his country’s fishing industry.

Screen shot from slideshow posted by Yanu ari, via YouTube

On December 5, 2014, a group of Indonesian officials and press stood looking out at three ships on the water. Each of the vessels was a Vietnamese fishing boat, captured operating in Indonesia’s waters illegally, cleared of its crew and impounded. Suddenly, they all blew up.

This was no freak accident. It was a spectacle put on by the Indonesian government, and just the first of many. In the past, Indonesia has sunk one or two illegal fishing trawlers as a selective and harsh deterrent to would-be transnational fish poachers. But as of last winter, the new regime of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has stepped up their game, ordering the highly publicized destruction of an unprecedented level of unlicensed foreign craft in their territorial waters.

An aggressive move, this has irked Indonesia’s neighbors, who feel a bit slighted by a foreign nation’s unilateral dispensation of justice and destruction of their citizens’ property. It’s an especially ballsy policy given that the nation has already drawn serious international ire for its decision to execute foreign drug dealers, most recently slating two seemingly reformed Australians for a highly publicized execution. Yet despite all the bad blood it threatens to create, Jokowi seems determined to push forward with this and a host of other maritime crackdowns, asserting that these foreigners-be-damned, strongman, protectionist policies are vital to his nation’s economy. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re incredibly popular with voters either.

One of the platforms on which Jokowi came to power last October was his determination to protect Indonesia’s massive fishing industry—the second largest in the world and a huge source of domestic revenue and employment. Thanks to the nation’s massive coastline and many hiding spots, its waters also serve as a hotspot for regional poachers (predominately from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, although sometimes flying under foreign flags), whose ships can often evade even military patrol boats. Thanks to these undeterred poachers, Jokowi’s regime claims that the nation’s economy loses almost $23 billion per year, not to mention the toll unregulated fishing can take on fish stocks and the industry’s future for licensed locals.

In the first days of his regime, Joko did the kinds of things you might expect such a nation to do: He suspended new fishing licenses, cracked down on practices that allowed people to overfish quasi-legally, and ordered the formation of a new coast guard unit with more and better patrol boats. Yet beyond building up the nation’s laws and capacities, the president apparently believed that it was necessary to put the fear of god in foreign fishers, convincing them that if they poached his waters they would be caught and jailed—and would likely lose their boats. He sent jets to patrol the waters, authorized the navy to sink ships on sight if needed, and massively increased the number of foreign ship captures.

There have only been a couple of big, public sinkings since December 5: Around Christmas, two Thai ships flying under a Papua New Guinean flag were brought down. And just last month, a few more Vietnamese boats bit the dust. And some accounts claim that dozens have been taken out in less glitzy ceremonies. Yet the Indonesian government claims they only sink ships that they have definitive proof (vetted by the legal system) were poaching; the rest they capture. At least 150 craft were confiscated between October and January, including two dozen Chinese ships, a fact that has angered China, the major regional sea power, world’s largest fisher, and economic giant hovering over every action Jokowi takes. No one is sure if Joko’s hesitancy to sink these ships is a sign of the Realpolitik red line of his mission or just a coincidence, but his willingness to even confiscate Chinese boats, pissing off the biggest dog on the block, is proof of his commitment to his anti-poaching policies.

Legally speaking, Joko is indeed justified. The nation first started sinking foreign fishing ships in 2007, but amended their Fisheries Law in 2009 to explicitly enshrine the practice as a legal, anti-poaching countermeasure (albeit they only sank about three dozen ships from 2007 to 2012, a sign of the intensity of Joko’s ramp-up). And Joko claims that all the ships he is destroying have gone through the courts, been found guilty of poaching, and cleared of their crews. Yet that legality doesn’t do much to repair the knee-jerk strain and distaste felt by nations like China.

Jokowi. Photo by ahmad syauki via Flickr

Even if the ships’ destruction is raising tensions with Indonesia’s neighbors, it’s incredibly popular at home, where Maritime Affairs Minister Susi Pudjiastuti has the cabinet’s highest approval rating. She claims that the crackdown has reduced illegal fishing by 90 percent, down from 5,000 to 500 illicit boats in Indonesian waters at any time. The only people who seem disturbed locally are environmentalists—but just because they’d like the government to blow up the ships further away from reefs, and do a better job of cleaning out oil and cargo beforehand. Otherwise, even they’re down with a little righteous poacher retribution.

The whole ship-sinking trend seems to play into a bigger trope in Jokowi’s presidency: foreign relations be damned, he’ll do whatever he thinks is necessary to resolve domestic issues and appeal to the voting masses. Case in point, his decision to ramp up the execution of drug smugglers, both local and foreign, has raised tensions with major trading partners and neighbors like Australia, Brazil, and the Netherlands. These executions, especially the aforementioned scheduled deaths of two Australians, have dominated Western media coverage of Indonesia as of late. But Joko’s boat-sinking policy, although maybe less compelling from a human interest point of view, could very well develop into a major regional issue, a thorn in the side of their neighboring Chinese giant, whose opinions are just as much or more likely to impact Indonesia’s future than Australia’s. Yet despite outcry from all corners and even Australian cajoling, saying Indonesia owes them for emergency relief funds distributed over the years, Jokowi has most often just barreled ahead with brash and visceral policies his people love and the world hates.

If the world can learn anything about Joko from his ship-sinking venture and the rest of his bold policies, it’s that he’s forceful and determined. One can doubt the ethicality or efficacy of his policies, but it’s hard to doubt his devotion to his nation’s sovereignty and integrity—or to the will of his people, who don’t want to be pushed around or used by their neighbors or major powers. There’s always the chance that this all could backfire into xenophobia or overzealous applications of stringent legal measures. Or, on the other side of the equation, these affairs could eventually lead to isolation and ostracization for Indonesia. And while there’s something to be admired in Joko’s populist responsiveness and gritty resolve, we can only hope his go-it-alone attitude does not spiral into quasi-legal actions, and that his policies are actually effective in reducing the region’s plague of maritime poaching.

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