Asia Defense

Why Did Malaysia Just Burn an Illegal Fishing Vessel?

The move is being read as an escalation in the country’s crackdown on sea crimes

Why Did Malaysia Just Burn an Illegal Fishing Vessel?
Credit: Flickr/Naval Surface Warriors

On Wednesday, Malaysia made headlines when it burned an illegal fishing vessel out at sea. The move is just the latest that the country is taking to demonstrate its commitment to cracking down on the issue.

Illegal fishing has long been a problem for Malaysia (as it has been for a few other Southeast Asian countries as well, including Indonesia). A recent government estimate indicating that the country loses about 980,000 metric tons of fish a year estimated to be worth around 6 billion ringgit, mostly from fishing vessels coming from Thailand and Vietnam.

In response, various Malaysian agencies, including the Fisheries Department and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) – the country’s equivalent of a coast guard – have been taking a series of measures to address the problem (See: “Assessing Malaysia’s Coast Guard in ASEAN Perspective“). These range from being stricter with respect to prosecuting guilty foreign fishermen to sinking ships and turning them into artificial reefs, which can turn into breeding grounds and boost the income of local fishermen.

But this week’s burning of an illegal fishing vessel by the MMEA, which occurred around eight nautical miles off the coast of Tok Bali, Kelantan and was the first of its kind publicly carried out there, is being portrayed as a deliberate escalation.

No specifics were publicly provided about the vessel itself, including its specifications as well as the country of origin. MMEA Deputy Director General for Operations Taha Ibrahim said in a statement that since sinking ships and turning them into artificial reefs had “not had any lasting impact on offenders” the burning was used to “send a clear message to the local and international community that the Malaysian government is very serious about combating the issue.”

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But as other Malaysian officials will privately admit, the impact of such signaling continues to be limited by other factors, including the country’s resource constraints. In addition to the fact that Malaysia still lacks the overall capacity to fully and effectively police its own waters more generally, some of the aging vessels possessed by the authorities are simply not quick enough to catch illegal fishermen, which would otherwise significantly increase both the rate of actual prosecutions as well as any sort of deterrent effect the country is seeking to achieve.

There are also more practical realities that policymakers face. For instance, there can at times be a significant lag time between when an uptick in incursions occurs and when authorities can carry out sinkings or burnings, since an adherence to procedure requires a series of approvals from courts as well as other agencies to make sure that legal, environmental, political, and security considerations are fully taken into account. That in turn can also reduce the effectiveness of these measures as part of a broader, coordinated response.