J Thonak/Conservation International


Banner photo by J Thonak/Conservation International

Indonesia's US backed crackdown on illegal fishing is great news, but we shouldn't forget about conservation.

According to the World Bank, fully two-thirds of Indonesia’s reefs are currently threatened by overfishing.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s plan to establish Indonesia as a ‘global maritime axis’ took a step forward last month, as US ambassador Robert Blake announced a partnership programme to help improve marine law enforcement in the world’s largest archipelagic nation.

According to the World Bank, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF) costs an estimated US$20 billion in lost revenue annually – it’s thought that up to a quarter of these losses occur in Indonesia, whose fishing industry is second only to China in size.  

2015 saw the country launch a high profile ‘war’ on IUUF, as charismatic new Marine Affairs & Fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti set about sending a strong message to Indonesia’s neighbours by blowing up vessels caught fishing illegally and arresting their crews. Since she took office in October 2014, 157 boats have been seized and 113 sunk, while 15 companies have lost their business permits. Pudjiastuti also banned transhipment at sea and restricted commercial fishing grounds.

The hard line approach has proved popular with the Indonesian public and the media, but it’s more than just clever PR. Pudjiastuti – a businesswoman whose divorcee status, tattoos and smoking habit single her out from many of her cabinet colleagues – has succeeded in dramatically improving the sector. In the last quarter of 2015, Indonesia’s fisheries grew by 8.37%, almost double the country’s overall economic growth in the same period.

The increased cooperation between Indonesia and the US follows President Widodo’s visit to Washington in October last year, when he and President Obama signed a Maritime Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that emphasised security, economic viability and conservation.

Conservation is a crucial part of the equation in a country that lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, home to 60% of the world’s reef-building corals –  crucial habitats and spawning grounds for commercially important fish species. According to the World Bank, fully two-thirds of Indonesia’s reefs are currently threatened by overfishing.

In December 2015, the US government’s development agency USAID committed US$33 million over five years to help protect marine resources and improve the sustainability of Indonesia’s fishing industry. Over the last decade or so, the size of Indonesia’s Marine Protected Areas MPAs has more than tripled and is still on target to reach 200,000 sq km by 2020.

All of this is positive news for the world’s biggest fishery, but establishing MPAs is only half the story of course. Surveys suggest that many of Indonesia’s marine parks are lacking the robust management and enforcement that they need. US environmental charity Conservation International recently carried out an in depth assessment of the Natuna Islands, a remote archipelago west of Borneo. Scientists were shocked to discover that conditions were actually worse within the MPA than outside it.

The indications are that Indonesia will continue its zero-tolerance policy on IUUF through 2016, even going as far as bypassing the sometimes lengthy judicial process and allowing coast guard and navy to sink trespassing vessels immediately. So far, the policies haven’t led to the diplomatic meltdown that many predicted and they should in theory reduce pressure on the all-important MPAs. But the MPAs themselves need to be managed in a dynamic, collaborative way, involving local communities in a range of enterprises, from eco-tourism to sustainable aquaculture to conservation. Making MPAs economically viable gives communities a real stake in their success. 

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