Indonesia Wants Global War on Illegal Fishing

The Southeast Asian state wants illegal fishing to be declared a transnational crime.

Over the weekend, Indonesia’s Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said at a seminar that Indonesia would ask the United Nations to support its efforts to categorize illegal fishing as a transnational crime. Her comments reflect the importance that the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has attached to illegal fishing domestically, regionally, as well as internationally.

As I have noted before, since coming to power in October 2014, Jokowi has vowed to realize his vision of turning Indonesia into a “global maritime fulcrum” between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. While that vision has several pillars, one key manifestation of it has been clamping down on illegal fishing. According to Jokowi, over 5,000 ships operate illegally in Indonesian waters each year, making a mockery of Indonesian sovereignty and resulting in annual losses of over $20 billion. The fishing sector is a key part of Indonesia’s economic development – according to 2016 data by the United Nations (UN), Indonesia is the world’s second biggest fish producer, generating 14.3 million tons of seafood per year.

The most visible manifestation of Indonesia’s crackdown on illegal fishing has been the public sinking of ships, dubbed the “sink the vessels” policy (See: “Explaining Indonesia’s Sink The Vessels Policy Under Jokowi”). But Indonesian officials have been keen to emphasize – and rightly so – that there are other important economic, legal, and diplomatic efforts that are being undertaken at home as well, including a moratorium on issuing business licenses and the setting up of local fisheries courts.

Meanwhile, abroad, Indonesian officials, including Jokowi and Susi, have been raising the issue of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) in regional and international fora and working more with other institutions that have long been highlighting problems in this domain. At the Second International Symposium on Fisheries Crime in Yogyakarta last October, Jokowi reiterated the case for cracking down on illegal fishing, noting that Indonesia’s own efforts had already seen its production capacity rise over the past few years. And during the World Ocean Summit in Bali in February, Susi made a similar call to the one she did this weekend, asking the UN and the European Commission (EC) to classify IUU fishing as a transnational organized crime.

In the eyes of Susi, the case for making illegal fishing a transnational crime is clear. IUU fishing by nature involves transnational organizations from various countries – using different flags, crews, and ships – which means that truly cracking down on it would require enforcement from international institutions like the UN and the European Union (EU). Furthermore, classifying it as such would also allow countries to get assistance from organizations such as Interpol and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for their own efforts to eradicate IUU fishing.

Indonesia’s international efforts have found backing from other countries as well, including Norway and Sweden. That too is no surprise. For years, countries have complained that illegal fishing, which can include a range of practices along the fisheries value chain not only at sea, but also on land, from improper vessel registration to money laundering, has received neither the attention it deserves nor the understanding it requires. This has especially been the case on the law enforcement side, where some illegal fishing practices are the product of organized criminal groups.

Despite the obstacles inherent in such an effort, Indonesia shows few signs of letting up. Indeed, in her remarks over the weekend, which were at a seminar at Muhammadiyah University in Yogyakarta, Susi indicated that Peter Thomson, the president of the UN General Assembly, had helped coordinate and facilitate a side event where Indonesia could raise the issue of illegal fishing and ask the world body’s support to declare it a transnational crime.