Can Indonesia become a fisheries leader again?

With the former fisheries minister jailed for corruption, Indonesia can once again take a hard line on illegal fishing

Indonesia fisheries: Two young fishers return to shore at Kedonganan on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Two young fishers return to shore at Kedonganan on the Indonesian island of Bali. Traditional, small-scale fisheries are a vital source of nutrition and income across the archipelago nation. (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

This July, Indonesia’s former fisheries minister Edhy Prabowo was sentenced to five years in prison after a court found him guilty of accepting bribes to lift a ban on the export of lobster larvae.

The decision was widely praised by environmentalists and fisheries organisations. But the case, brought by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), remains a sign that Indonesia has fallen away from its position as an exemplar of sustainable oceans policy.

Edhy’s sentencing came a little more than two years after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo unexpectedly appointed him instead of sticking with incumbent fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti. Susi had become popular in Indonesia thanks to her hard line on illegal fishing, which included blowing up culpable vessels. Entering at the beginning of Jokowi’s second term, Edhy undid several of Susi’s policies as the president pushed for a greater focus on GDP growth over long-term sustainable practices.

“It’s the same president, but a different direction,” said Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, on the changes since Jokowi’s 2019 re-election. “We’ve had several major setbacks, and still we don’t have any progressive direction from the current government.”

Workers on an industrial fishing vessel unload buckets of frozen skipjack tuna at the port of Benoa in Bali. Business licences are mandatory for vessels like this to operate in Indonesian waters
Workers on an industrial fishing vessel unload buckets of frozen skipjack tuna at the port of Benoa in Bali. Business licences are mandatory for vessels like this to operate in Indonesian waters. But small-scale fishers complain that because they are given to companies rather than individual vessels, large fleets can sometimes be deployed under a single licence. This puts undue pressure on fish stocks. (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

Edhy was replaced by Sakti Wahyu Trenggono in December 2020, shortly after the KPK announced its case against him. The new fisheries minister has made some positive moves, but it remains to be seen if he’ll return to the more dramatic, effective and popular policies of Susi.

From sustainable management to prioritising the economy

Indonesia has more than 17,500 islands and the ocean makes up more than three-quarters of its territory. The fisheries sector is central to the economy, providing US$27 billion in gross domestic product, supporting seven million jobs, and supplying more than half of the country’s animal-based protein intake.

Fishers on Kedonganan beach in Bali untangle last night’s catch from their hand-pulled nets.
Fishers on Kedonganan beach in Bali untangle last night’s catch from their hand-pulled nets. Much of the catch will be sardinella or shallow-water reef species, destined either for the fishers’ own tables, or for sale in Pasar Ikan Kedonganan, the island’s largest traditional fish market. (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

Despite being the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia had played a relatively small role in global fisheries and ocean policymaking. That changed when Jokowi picked Susi to be his first fisheries minister in 2014. Relatively unknown but with extensive experience of fisheries, she soon made waves globally with her decisive action on behalf of Indonesian fishers.

During her five years at the head of the ministry, Susi took a hard-handed approach, most visibly through her policy of seizing and sinking foreign vessels fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. She also made public the country’s boat-tracking data, and pushed to reduce environmentally dangerous fishing practices by small-scale fishers.

“She was willing to take on the power elite when it came to the large-scale commercial fishing industry that was detrimental to both the fishing communities and fisheries resources,” said Sally Yozell, director of the Environmental Security programme at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.

Indonesia fisheries: Workers on a floating farm near the village of Serangan in Bali winch up a lobster cage for cleaning and feeding
Workers on a floating farm near the village of Serangan in Bali winch up a lobster cage for cleaning and feeding. The farm raises lobsters from wild larvae caught mainly in Negara on the western side of the island. One of the aims of the 2016 ban on lobster larvae exports, brought in by Indonesia’s former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, was to encourage farms like this one. (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

Susi proposed the lobster larvae export ban in 2016. Lobster aquaculture in countries like Vietnam and China depends on imports of larvae and juveniles. They are first caught in Indonesian waters before being transported and grown in submerged cages abroad, and then sold as adults often at a large profit.

Indonesia is one of a few countries able to export large numbers of lobster larvae, and their stocks had been depleted by exploitation prior to the ban. It was also hoped that limiting exports would encourage lobster farming domestically, providing income for coastal communities.

Along with her boat-scuttling policies, she introduced policies to stem the use of environmentally harmful fishing methods such as bottom trawl nets, which scrape the ocean floor and damage coral reef ecosystems and bottom-dwelling species. The health of fisheries duly improved, with studies showing an increase in biomass in Indonesian waters and a reduction in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Farmhand Pak Made Trim holds two of the lobsters being raised on his floating farm in Serangan. According to the ban on exporting larvae, which was re-introduced in June, the lobsters can be sold overseas once they’re over 200 grams. But with shipping costs up due to Covid-19 and uncompetitive prices on the international market, the farm is opting to only sell domestically for the time being. (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

Under Edhy, the boat destruction stopped, bottom trawl nets returned and data-sharing with the non-profit Global Fishing Watch (GFW) ended.

Since the departure of Susi in 2019, there have been several leadership and staff changes in the fisheries ministry, said Ko-Jung Lo, GFW’s regional manager for Asia. “The renewal of our agreement with the ministry was delayed because of these changes and, as a result, Indonesia suspended its Vessel Monitoring System data feed to our map.”

Uncertain future

Not everyone was happy about Susi’s policies. She had opponents in the capital, Jakarta, and among business interests. This, along with a shift towards more economy-minded decision-making, is believed to have led to her replacement.

“Globally, almost everyone was disappointed to see someone who was working to manage the fisheries sustainably, in a country that is the world’s second largest producer of seafood, be replaced,” said Yozell. “She was really trying to balance sustainably managing fisheries with the economic needs of the fishing industry.”

Impounded local and foreign fishing vessels await disposal at the port of Benoa in Bali. Some of these vessels were seized for illegal fishing activities during Susi’s term. (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

Since taking over, the current fisheries minister, Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, has shown more willingness to engage with civil society, and has been in contact with Susi, according to Arifsyah. In June, he brought back the ban on exporting lobster larvae, and the following month, he reimposed bans on destructive purse seine and bottom trawl fishing. There are concerns, though, about the ministry potentially giving licences to foreign fishing boats to operate in Indonesia.

Bustar Maitar, CEO of Indonesian NGO EcoNusa, said that reducing the number of permits given to foreign fishing boats “will surely provide larger space to small fishers”. He added: “The Indonesian native fishers therefore could catch fish in Indonesian waters.”

Slamet, a fisher from Java who has lived in Bali for over 30 years, mends his nets. He is angry about the competition small-scale fishers like him face from industrial boats, which can “take a tonne in a single haul”.  He describes how industrial vessels use spotlights to fish: “That’s what ruins and depletes the fish stocks here. Back in minister Susi’s day, fishing with lights was illegal, but not any more.” (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

Also of concern is Indonesia’s Omnibus Law on Job Creation, a 1,028-page bill that became law late last year. The broadest amending of Indonesia’s legal code in decades, it modified or annulled 79 different laws that govern land use, environmental impacts, infrastructure and much more. It has the potential to speed up the implementation of environmentally harmful development projects such as ports, coal plants and land reclamation – without proper local consultation or environmental impact analysis.

“We’re concerned that the omnibus law will result in more conflicts on the ground, because the environment and coastal communities will be deprioritised,” said Arifsyah.

Despite the uncertainty at the fisheries ministry, GFW is focusing on working with local governments and organisations, especially on a challenge that Susi wasn’t able to address during her first term – managing small-scale vessels.

Rigid inflatables belonging to the water unit of the Indonesian police sit ready outside the coast guard station in Benoa. The boats are taken out on patrols twice a day, mainly to check for fishing vessels operating without a licence. (Image: Daniel Darmawan / China Dialogue Ocean)

“Small-scale fisheries are a vital source of nutrition and income for many communities in Indonesia. Yet nearly all small-scale fishing, which makes up almost 90% of Indonesia’s fishing sector, is unmonitored and unreported,” said Lo. “With more affordable tracking technology and better monitoring data, we would like to support Indonesia’s small-scale fisheries sector [in] efforts to promote legal, reported and regulated fishing activity.”

Arifsyah hopes that Sakti, and President Jokowi, turn back to the model implemented under Susi, which also means playing an active role in global conferences and negotiations.

“Let’s bring back Indonesia’s leadership in the international forum,” said Arifsyah. “Share the challenges, and be proactive in commitments around saving the ocean and ending human trafficking. That is something that we hope the current minister takes forward.”