Malaysia's dramatic burning of two boats caught fishing illegally in its waters highlights how incendiary these matters are getting to be in this region. Taking a cue from Indonesia, where the tactic was visibly projected after President Joko Widodo took office, Malaysia's actions took place off the coast of Kelantan where the foreign vessels were seized. Malaysia's Fisheries Department said in June that the country loses nearly a million tonnes of seafood annually to poachers. The move to burn the boats underscores the frustration of the authorities there - after taking action against 285 bands of poachers in recent years, it seems merely sinking their vessels has not worked.
While Malaysia's action signals its resolve to tackle the canker, it remains to be seen how effective it will be. With rising incomes across Asia fuelling demand for better nutrition, the fishing industry is enjoying higher revenues. This has led to investment in satellite navigation, sonar, on-board refrigeration, and more powerful, fuel-efficient motors. These help to push foreign vessels further out to sea, even as the ocean stock in the waters gets rapidly depleted. In Port Blair, administrative headquarters of the part of the Andaman chain that belongs to India, the prison overflows with Vietnamese and Thai poachers. Chinese fishermen have been reportedly showing up even in faraway South American waters.
Not only is all this having a catastrophic effect on the sea environment, but it is triggering geopolitical conflict too. The issue is one that causes recurrent tensions between India and the governments of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The long stand-off between the Philippines and China in Scarborough Shoal was not only about territory, but fishing rights as well. Last year, the Chinese Coast Guard stunned South-east Asia by entering Indonesian waters to free a Chinese poaching vessel in Indonesian custody. Hence, it was no surprise when Jakarta recently named that part of its waters as the North Natuna Sea, in order to assert jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone.
The Malaysian action, which also took place in the South China Sea, affirms that island-building is only one part of the problem. It is clear that far from receding, fishing disputes will only gain salience in the years ahead. Rather than wait for the inevitable retaliations and recriminations that will doubtless follow, it is time for the region to take proactive steps to mitigate the problem. The task will be onerous. It is easier to coordinate anti-piracy operations because that is a patently criminal activity. Fishing, however, cuts to the bone because it is about livelihoods and that most basic of needs - food. The path forward, therefore, has to be twofold: licensing and careful monitoring of fishermen at home, and constructive cooperation abroad to save the oceans.