[Analytics] Indonesia vs China in a fish fight at sea

Workers unload yellowfin tuna at a fishing port in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, April 4, 2019. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti is going toe-to-toe with Chinese and other foreign poachers she claims illegally take 80% of her nation’s catch. John McBeth specially for the Asia Times.

The catch has expanded dramatically, the fish are bigger and new canneries have sprung up all around Indonesia, all apparent signs of a hale and hearty fisheries industry.

But Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti continues to fight a constant battle since she banned foreign trawlers from Indonesian waters in arguably one of the most notable achievements of Joko Widodo’s first term as president.

In an interview with Asia Times, Pudjiastuti said she believes up to 80% of the nation’s catch is still exported illegally or offloaded on to foreign, often Chinese-owned, mother ships outside its 200-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) – a transshipment practice she wants declared an international crime.

Moreover, she says only a quarter of the estimated 3,000 new 100-200 tonne fishing boats built locally in the past three years have been properly registered; the rest are painted the same color and carry duplicate names to avoid paying taxes.

There is big money involved for the 100 or so Indonesian businessmen involved, of whom about 20 own 4,500 of the 7,600 registered boats above 30 tonnes, according to the minister. Annual profits, she says, range from US$1-2 million for 30-100 tonne vessels, and $2-4 million for those in the 100-200 tonne capacity.

The result: many of the Indonesian businessmen who previously engaged in flawed joint ventures with Chinese, Thai and other large regional fishing companies to plunder their country’s maritime resources are now finding ways to do it independently.

Despite all that, the fisheries sector’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) has risen from 7.3% to 7.9% in the past three years, growing by 5.7% per year and making Indonesia into the world’s second biggest producer of fisheries and aquaculture, according to the 2018 European Union Fish Market Report.

Five years after the ban’s enforcement, Indonesia is now the largest producer of tuna, representing 16% of the world total, half of which is exported to the US in the form of frozen whole fish and fillets. It is a lucrative market that has grown by 130% since 2014.

After suffering through difficult early years of the ban due to a lack of fish, the North Sulawesi fishing port of Bitung, for example, is now home to 47 canneries from just a handful a few years ago, processing a large percentage of the 76,700 tonnes of canned tuna Indonesia exported in 2017.

Pudjiastuti, a 54-year-old rags-to-riches entrepreneur who parlayed her West Java seafood processing business into the world’s largest small-plane airline, says Indonesian fishermen are now catching 80-kilogram tuna, almost twice the size of several years ago.

The Chinese have predictably sought to undercut Indonesia’s actions by using satellite systems that detect water density and direct fishing fleets to biomass concentrations of mainly tuna and tuna-like species before they reach Indonesian waters.

Satellite imagery shows nearly 4,000 fishing boats and support craft around Micronesia in the Western Pacific at any one time, about 85% of them from China and Taiwan. It is a picture that raises concerns about sustainability in nearby Indonesia.

“[Pudjiastuti’s] policies have been very effective,” says one maritime analyst who tracks the movement of China’s vast fishing fleet in the Western Pacific. “They (the Chinese) are now trying to get everything before it gets into Indonesian waters.”

Chinese vessels often turn off their transponders or change the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) international maritime regulations require of every ship over 100 tonnes.

There are other ploys as well. On one recent day, a vessel purportedly registered in land-locked Afghanistan showed up in the midst of a Chinese fleet.

While Beijing uses its fishermen – and accompanying Coastguard and militia patrol craft – as part of its forward deployment, Indonesia is taking a leaf out of its book by adapting similar tactics in the southern reaches of the South China Sea, which China claims as part of its traditional fishing grounds.

Pudjiastuti says there are now 600 Indonesian fishing boats operating out of the Natuna islands, Indonesia’s northernmost territory, where the government is building a cold storage and fish processing facility and temporary accommodations for fishermen.

With navy vessels regularly patrolling what Indonesia has renamed as the North Natuna Sea, there are plans to deploy a tanker to refuel the fishing fleet, acquire small surveillance drones and also to extend the runway on Natuna Besar, the chain’s main island.

Chinese trawlers have generally steered clear of Indonesian waters in the past 18 months, but it is well known Pudjiastuti and chief maritime minister Luhut Panjaitan don’t get on for reasons which underline Indonesia’s many internal difficulties in dealing with China.

She remains single-minded and stubborn towards the Chinese and their fishing practices. He oversees many Chinese-funded projects in Indonesia, including the long-delayed $6 billion Jakarta-Bandung fast railway that now seems to be making some headway.

Pudjiastuti has also made enemies abroad by persisting in her policy of sinking foreign fishing boats seized poaching in Indonesian waters after learning that local surrogates of the owners were paying only $50,000 at auction to get them back.

Earlier in May, the Fisheries Ministry sank 51 more impounded boats, bringing the total number of those destroyed to more than 500 since the fishing ban was enforced as part of Widodo’s tough new maritime policy.

Among the latest batch to be scuttled were 38 Vietnamese-flagged vessels; in recent months, the Vietnamese coast guard has been involved in four incidents with Indonesian patrol craft inside the EEZ, leading Hanoi to issue a diplomatic protest.

A video of the latest incident circulated on social media showed a Vietnamese vessel ramming the side of an Indonesian corvette, one of several acquired from the old East German navy in the early 1990s, while rifle-toting Indonesian sailors shouted abuse.

Indonesia is the first country in the world to make public real-time data on the location of all vessels in its waters, employing the Automated Identification System and Italian-developed imagery to create an overview across three times zones stretching from Aceh to Papua.

Most of the focus of the Fisheries Ministry and separate systems used by the navy and police is on key waterways, such as the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits, the Natuna islands and the Makassar Strait and further east to Papua, where the navy is forming a third fleet based out of the old oil port of Sorong.

Sometimes the Indonesians have been caught by surprise. In a little-known incident in April 2018, a navy fast patrol craft intercepted the Chinese satellite tracking ship Yuan Wan 7 after it veered out of an international shipping lane off of the northeast island of Sulawesi.

Informed sources say the navy’s attention was drawn to the way the 21,000-tonne vessel was making erratic maneuvers inconsistent with a normal transit. No radio contact was made between the two vessels and the Yuan Wang swiftly reversed course and headed north into international waters.

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