Blowing up illegal boats 'has boosted Indonesia's fish stocks'

Tough stance on illegal fishing has caused tensions with Beijing but it works, says Indonesian fisheries minister

WASHINGTON • Indonesia's crackdown on illegal fishing - with the public spectacle of seized boats blown to smithereens - may have sparked tensions with China, but the country's fisheries minister says it has led to a significant drop in overfishing.

The rejuvenation of fishing stocks will help Indonesia's economy as other growth drivers falter, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said in an interview in Washington, DC.

Growth is under pressure and set to be closer to the lower end of the central bank's 4.9 per cent to 5.3 per cent target this year. "Mining is going down, everything is going down, fisheries is the only one growing," Ms Pudjiastuti said.

Her role sees her defending an industry that, along with farming and forestry, makes up 14 per cent of the economy of the world's largest archipelago, and employs millions of Indonesians. The decline in fish stocks in north Asia has caused fishing boats to push into the territorial waters of South-east Asian nations like Indonesia, often shadowed by their home country's armed coast guards, which raises the potential for clashes at sea.

Ms Pudjiastuti, 51, has been in Cabinet since October 2014 and is popular with the public for her tough stance. Since the end of that year, Indonesia has destroyed 220 foreign boats. It has also faced increased Chinese claims that waters surrounding the gas-rich Natuna Islands are part of traditional Chinese fishing grounds. "We catch them and we sink them," Ms Pudjiastuti said of the boats. "That's the new rule, the national consensus."

The crackdown could see fishing stocks return to normal in two to three years, she said. With fewer foreign boats entering Indonesian waters, the country's catch has recovered to 6.6 million tonnes from a low of 2.5 million tonnes and could be sustainable at 9.9 million tonnes next year. "If this reform is dropped again that growth will be gone."

A businesswoman, Ms Pudjiastuti founded a small airline and a seafood export company and never completed high school. She has previously declared that only Indonesians "can catch fish in Indonesia".

She moved to play down a spike in public tensions with China this year, saying Indonesia had not recently spotted China's coast guard in the Natuna area. Still, China's coast guard is prowling in the nearby South China Sea, a key trading waterway criss-crossed by claims from nations including China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

While Beijing has been annoyed by the capture of its fishing boats, "I don't think there is any problem with the relationship", the minister said. "On the whole, Indonesia is very close to China, other than the fishing problem."

Still, the fight against illegal fishing continues. The likes of China, South Korea and Taiwan have vessels fishing all over the world.

"The bad guys never come into a port," she said, arguing for the need to stay aggressive on the high seas. "Illegal fishing is all offshore."

Indonesia has its own culprits, she added. Of the 400,000 to 500,000 Indonesians at sea outside the country's waters, half are not registered or otherwise unknown.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'Blowing up illegal boats 'has boosted Indonesia's fish stocks''. Print Edition | Subscribe