The detonation and sinking of illegal foreign vessels, such as this Thai-flagged boat, has proved popular with the public despite the environmental blowback. (Antara Photo/Joko Sulistyo)

Sinking Poachers’ Boats Doesn’t Float With Environmentalists

FEBRUARY 17, 2015

Jakarta. Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, has fast become one of the most popular ministers in President Joko Widodo’s cabinet, thanks in large part to her trigger-happy policy of sinking foreign fishing vessels caught poaching in Indonesian waters.

The sinkings began on Dec. 5 when three vessels flying the Vietnamese flag were scuttle off the Riau Islands.

Since then, the minister has been on a crusade, with the Navy behind her, to sink more boats, the most recent being on Feb. 10, when another Vietnamese vessel met a fiery fate in the pristine waters of the Raja Ampat archipelago in Papua.

But while the policy has earned Susi brownie points with the public (a survey last month identified her as the most popular minister in the cabinet), environmentalists are appalled at the gung-ho sinking of vessels, using explosives, in delicate maritime ecosystems.

“The debris of the vessels can end up becoming trash floating around in the sea,” says Arifsyah Nasution, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

“The use of explosives to sink the boat disturbs and threatens the fish near the location of the explosion — in a way, it has the same effect as using dynamite to catch fish.”

There is also no indication that the Navy properly cleans out the vessels of their highly polluting diesel and bunker oil before sinking them.

“The bigger the boat, the more oil is left over in the tanks, and that oil will contaminate the sea,” says Anton Wijonarno, the manager of the marine protected area for fisheries program at WWF Indonesia.

Both Arifsyah and Anton conceded that there has been little research on the impact to maritime ecosystems of blowing up wooden boats, but say the explosions need to stop, at least for now.

“There should be a discussion among maritime ecosystem experts on this matter as a precautionary approach before the government carries on sinking more vessels,” Arifsyah says.

Anton says the government must consider several factors to minimize damaging delicate ecosystems, such as Raja Ampat, which is an important habitat for manta rays and other rare marine species that flock to its extensive coral reefs.

“Any explosion should be conducted in an area where the water depth is at least 40 meters, not in shallow areas where coral grows,” Anton says.

He notes that while sunken wrecks can and often do serve as artificial reefs in coastal waters, the “excessive use” of explosives by the Navy can end up “destroying the vessels completely, thus rendering them useless as artificial reefs.”

President Joko claims that destroying illegal foreign fishing vessels has proven an effective deterrent against poachers. There are, however, no statistics available on the proliferation of such boats in Indonesian waters before and after the sinkings began to corroborate this.

For her part, Susi claims the government has, through the new hard-line policy, managed to slash the number of illegal vessels operating in the country’s waters by 90 percent — another figure that cannot be independently verified — and prevented them from “stealing the archipelago’s underwater natural resources.”

Greenpeace’s Arifsyah said that no matter how effective the government made the policy out to be, it should still consider sinking boats in the middle of the sea using explosives as an act of last resort.

“There are two other ways: sinking them without any burning or use of explosives, or towing them back to shore and breaking them up and selling the parts,” he says.