Indonesia and US join forces to police the seas

Johnny Langenheim The Guardian 3 Feb 16;

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

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

2015 saw Indonesia 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 very publicly 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 has also banned transshipment at sea and restricted the area open to commercial fishing.

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 – is achieving tangible progress. In the last quarter of 2015, Indonesia’s fisheries sector 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) to improve security, economic viability and conservation within the sector.

Conservation is a crucial part of the equation in a country that lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle bioregion, home to 60% of the world’s reef-building corals – vital 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 $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 overall area of the country’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) has more than tripled to 157,000 sq km and is intended to reach 200,000 sq km by 2020.

All of this is positive news for one of the world’s biggest fisheries, 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 in 2016, even 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 problems that many predicted and they should in theory reduce pressure on the all-important MPAs.

But the parks themselves need to be managed in a dynamic, collaborative way, engaging local people in enterprises like ecotourism, sustainable aquaculture, conservation and enforcement. Making marine parks economically viable gives communities a real stake in their success.

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