New Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo has promised to stop sinking illegal fishing boats and present a more business-friendly front for his ministry. (Antara Photo/M.N. Kanwa)

Sink 'Em All or Swim With the Current: Reorienting Policy in the Fisheries Sector


NOVEMBER 25, 2019

In the past five years, local media have been awash with images of Susi Pudjiastuti, the former fisheries minister, overseeing the sinking of illegal fishing boats. 

The semi-military hat Susi often wore during these occasions signified her position as the commander of the Presidential Task Force 115, which led other security forces in combating illegal, unreported and unregulated Fishing (IUUF) in Indonesian waters. 

Images like that may not be seen again during President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's second administration. 

Edhy Prabowo, the new Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister, has promised Indonesia would stop sinking illegal fishing boats, arguing that the policy was the result of ineffective communication in the past five years between the ministry and other stakeholders in the fisheries sector. 

His main argument for not implementing the same "sink them all" policy was that it had not contributed significantly to increasing Indonesia's fish export. Edhy said instead of sinking the boats, it would be better to give them away to local fishermen.

The new minister said he wanted to focus more on increasing Indonesia's fish export, which he claimed necessitated a friendlier approach to the fisheries sector.

One of Edhy's first agenda when he took office was summoning stakeholders in the sector to hear their concerns. Reportedly, many of them claimed they did not benefit from the previous minister.

The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry last year released a set of data that showed Indonesia's fish export had fallen to its lowest in five years. The data implied that there was an unproductive relationship between Minister Susi and the fisheries sector. 

The Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan had clashed several times with Susi over the matter. Luhut said the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry should be more business-friendly to support the administration's goal to increase fish exports.

The new minister seems to have got the signal and determined to change the ministry's policy direction under his leadership.

However, the war against IUUF should not be abandoned completely. Regardless of all the criticism at Susi's lack of communication with business owners in the fisheries sector, it has to be admitted that her success in combating IUUF has been monumental.

The world has acknowledged Susi's achievement in tackling IUUF and her great contribution to promote more sustainable use of the world's oceans. 

A 2018 study by the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the University of Indonesia, done in conjunction with Coventry University in the UK, found her policy to sink illegal fishing boats had contributed significantly to increasing Indonesia's fish stock.

Many traditional fishermen said they no longer had to sail far into the ocean to find fish during the five years of Susi's ministership. 

The fact that fish export did not automatically increase despite the boost in fish stock only showed that Indonesian fishermen lacked the expertise and facilities to catch and market them. 

A factor is the prohibition of high-capacity, ex-foreign fishing vessels in Indonesian waters. 

The absence of large-tonnage fishing vessels in our waters did result in decreasing number of fish catch. But this only means the ministry should be more concerned with increasing the capacity of local fishermen to ensure they can catch more fish.

The key to boost the performance of the fisheries sector in Jokowi's second term should be the integration of efforts to eradicate IUUF with better support for local fishermen. 

The ultimate goal is to reach a balance between ensuring welfare for fishermen and maintaining a sustainable use of our oceans.

The strategy would backfire if it only focused on creating a more business-friendly front for the ministry but neglected the fight against the unsustainable use of the sea. 

Finding this balanced approach should become the priority of the new Jokowi administration – if he remained committed to his vision of turning Indonesia into a global maritime fulcrum. 

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a researcher at the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the University of Indonesia's Faculty of Law and a fellow at Policylab's Center for Politics and Transnationalism.