Foreign fishing in Indonesian waters has long been a concern for the government, for which it has recently taken a literally explosive approach: blowing up illicit fishing boats. But the country’s wildly popular Minister of Marine Affairs lobbied the United Nations last week to declare illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF) an organized crime, signaling growing frustration and a new approach from Jakarta.

That said, even if the U.N. takes this step, Indonesia faces an uphill battle in protecting its fisheries. As the world’s largest archipelagic nation, it has somewhere between 15,000 and 17,000 islands and many kilometers of unsecured coastline. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo created a task force to address illegal fishing in October 2015, which reports directly to him and gives the Navy, the National Police and the Maritime Security Agency wide jurisdiction to deter illegal fishing by any means necessary.

But the fleet and law enforcement personnel are still small given the scale of the problem, which costs Indonesia, by one estimate, $3 billion a year.

Surprisingly empowered task force

Task forces, or “Satgas” (satuan tugas in Bahasa Indonesia) are almost a punchline in Indonesian governance because they are created for a wide variety of issues and often with unclear mandates. But the fishing task force feels different, according to Mas Achmad Santosa, head of the IUUF Fisheries Task Force.

“This is the first time for Indonesians that the president has set up a task force and it actually works well,” Santosa told VOA. “Every element needed for enforcement is there: investigators [from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fishery, Marine Police, Coast Guard, and Navy], prosecutors under the attorney general’s office, and several experts from fields like money laundering and environmental law.”

There are about 60 dedicated members of this task force, but they work closely with the above institutions so their effective numbers are larger, Santosa said.

The task force only directly prosecutes cases with “elements of serious crime,” said Santosa, and they have prosecuted 42 such cases over the last year.

“But our fleet is far from sufficient, we must admit,” Santosa said. “Compared to our oceans, which are huge, the technology is limited.” They only have four patrol boats, for instance.

Since Jokowi took office in 2014, Indonesia has blown up over 300 illegal fishing boats, taking out 81 near Ambon over a single weekend last April. The eye-catching strategy has become something of a local tourist attraction. Its symbolic impact, though, could be larger.

“Blowing up boats is just one of our treatments. But we hope it creates a general deterrent effect,” Santosa said.

Charismatic leader

Indonesia’s Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, known as “Bu Susi,” is a high school dropout turned entrepreneur with a knack for viral photo opportunities (smoking on a paddleboard, sleeping in an airport) and a no-nonsense style that has raised the profile of her relatively obscure ministry.

“It’s very important to have a strong leader, and she is a person of integrity who leads by example,” Santoso said.

Foreign fishing is concentrated in Maluku, Sumatra, and the Indian Ocean, according to the maritime ministry. Beyond that, there are also illicit Indonesian vessels that engage in what Santoso calls “unsustainable fishing that will destroy ecosystems.” So international cooperation is not a silver bullet;  the task force’s inroads on domestic fishing will be equally important, and somewhat harder to attack in such a spectacular manner.

Domestic agenda

The Peoples Coalition for Fishery Justice (KIARA) has urged the maritime ministry to revise regulations that they say hinder the development of the local fishing industry.

“Today the biggest challenge faced by coastal communities, especially fishermen, is the investment from and development through foreign capital,” KIARA secretary-general Susan Herawati Romica told VOA. For instance, she said, on the island of Gili Sunut, Lombok, there are 109 households who have been displaced by construction on a Singaporean beach resort to more dangerous cliffside areas.

“Today, 90 percent of Indonesian fishermen are traditional fishermen with vessels that average below 10 gross tons,” she said. “They rely heavily on marine and coastal areas, but they still face major challenges in accessing the coast.”

According to KIARA data, there have been at least 34 recent cases of mine reclamation or development that have displaced local communities. “To that end, we say, if the country wants to push fisheries to provide the maximum benefit to coastal communities, then access to the sea [for local communities] should be guaranteed by the state.”

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