The Ministry of Maritime Affairs' policy of sinking iillegal vessels disregards the potential pollution caused by the condemned vessels sitting at the bottom of our seas. (Antara Photo)

Johannes Nugroho: Why Sinking Ships Is Not Good for Indonesia


JANUARY 23, 2018

Jakarta. Late last year Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Minister Susi Pudjiastuti came under fire for her insistence on continuing her policy of sinking vessels impounded for illegal fishing activities in Indonesian waters. Unbending, the minister said that downing ships is the best way to defend the nation's maritime sovereignty. Since 2015, her ministry has sunk 317 vessels and the number is expected to rise to 405 by the end of this year.

While it seems that the practice is set to continue, there are compelling reasons why it should not. First, there is now political momentum for it to stop.

No less than Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan ─ Susi's own immediate superior ─ and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani have spoken in favor of alternative ways of dealing with impounded vessels.

Kalla told the press that there had been diplomatic pressure from countries affected by the seize-and-sink policy to the effect that Indonesia resort to other punitive means, such as by auctioning off impounded ships. Luhut, on the other hand, spoke for their confiscation as state property, to be put at the disposal of local fishermen.

Sri Mulyani seconded Luhut's idea, though she noted that under the current legal framework, court proceedings will be needed before declaring them to be state property. "President [Joko Widodo's] concern [in the matter] is how these vessels could be of maximum benefit to the people," she reasoned.

That three senior cabinet members have voiced their disapproval of Susi's policy on sinking illegal fishing vessels is noteworthy. Does it mean a change of policy is around the corner? Sri Mulyani's invocation of the president is especially interesting, given that during a recent meeting with fishermen protesting Susi's all-out ban on cantrang (a local version of seine net), President Jokowi decided to rule out Susi and revoked the ban.

But there is a fundamental difference between calling off the ban on cantrang fishing ─ which can damage the marine environment due to over-fishing but is popular among fishermen ─ and a halt to downing illegal ships. The former is definitely populist while the latter may prove the opposite. The seize-and-sink policy remains a trademark policy of Minister Susi and may be a determining factor in her being the minister with the highest public approval ratings in the cabinet.

Given the patriotic rhetoric surrounding the policy in the first place, it will be hard for the president to make a U-turn now. Even if the policy is to be discontinued, to protect the president's image of being "pro-people," it will have to be seen as the minister's own decision.

This was apparent in the president's reply when asked by reporters about the divergent views in his cabinet on the issue. While admitting that sinking illegal ships would send out a strong message, Jokowi also appreciated the logic behind rehashing the ships for the welfare of ordinary fishermen. Refusing to take sides, he said, "I'm sure every minister has the country's best interests in mind when coming up with every policy. I support all of them in this."

Yet refitting the impounded vessels to be used by Indonesian fishermen may prove to be equally popular as the inherently nationalist act of sinking illegal "foreign" ships. Whatever the final decision is on the matter, it will be a tough political choice either way.

Politics aside, the disturbing imagery of the 2015 scenes of exploding ships going down into their watery grave may be psychologically damaging to the nation, not to mention perpetuating our less than rosy international image on communal violence.

For a society that see so much violence in our everyday life ─ regular lynching or torching of suspected thieves or mob attacks organized by intolerant group comes to mind─ is there an end to our escapades into destructive acts? The nation must simply find other less devastating avenues of communal catharsis.

To be fair, as of 2017, the Ministry of Fisheries no longer blows up caught vessels in order to sink them. Desisting on further pyrotechnics, it now bores holes into their bowels to achieve the same result. Yet the new method dispense with the environmental risks posed by littering our ocean bed with hundreds of shipwrecks.

Scientific research has proved that shipwrecks, which continue to corrode and oxidize underwater, are a source of contaminants for the marine environment, potentially poisoning fish and other biota. In light of the environmental arguments used by Minister Susi in enacting her cantrang ban, it is surprising that she has chosen to disregard the potential pollution caused by the condemned vessels sitting at the bottom of our seas.

International bodies such as the International Maritime Organization and the World Wide Fund for Nature have long recognized the damaging effects of shipwrecks have on the environment. In 2007, an international convention was held in Nairobi to discuss how to remove the thousands of underwater shipwrecks across the globe. It is indeed an irony that the Indonesian government, contrary to international aspirations, plans to enlarge the number further.

There is no denying that tackling the problem of illegal fishing is also important. The official statistics should speak for themselves. Thirty percent of global fishing yields are illegal, for example. More troubling for Indonesia, almost 30 percent of global illegal fishing activities take place within our maritime borders.

Susi's tough stance on illegal fishing is to be lauded. She is Indonesia’s first Fisheries Minister to tackle the problem head-on with admirable consistency and perseverance. Her choice to blow up and sink caught vessels back in 2015 succeeded in showing the world Indonesia's resolve in combating what amounts to piracy on our own seas.

However, now that the message ─ alongside the downed vessels ─ has also sunk in, it is time that Indonesia considered other means of dealing with them. To let our fishermen use them, after proper court proceedings or a change in our fishery law, is an attractive idea that merits further thoughts. The scheme may even be an added incentive for ordinary fishermen to report suspicious vessels roaming our seas, thereby preserving the combative spirit against illegal shipping that Susi has unleashed.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter @Johannes_nos.