The Jakarta Post
As various government agencies scramble to contain the spread of COVID-19, illegal fishing in Indonesia’s outermost islands of the North Natuna Sea remains rife, a senior official at the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry has said.
Indonesia’s vast and porous borders have been subject to years — even decades — of poaching by countries as far away as China, but the coronavirus pandemic has dominated much of the headlines since it spread throughout Southeast Asia over the past couple of months.
But while most governments in the region have looked inward to curb the spread of the deadly disease within their respective borders, the disease has not stopped foreign fishermen from trying to fish illegally in Indonesian waters.
Most recently, the ministry detained two Vietnamese-flagged fishing vessels on Friday for illicit activities within the waters of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in Riau Islands province.
The vessels, identified as KG 93811 TS and KG 93012 TS, were seized by the Orca 03 fisheries supervisory vessel, along with 22 Vietnamese crew members and illegal trawling equipment.
The ministry’s director general of marine resources and fisheries supervision, TB Haeru Rahayu, said the boats were caught in the 711 Fisheries Management Area (WPP), which encompasses the Karimata Strait, the Natuna Sea and the North Natuna Sea.
“Looking at the data in the field, it seems there is an increasingly concerning trend of more illegal fishing activities in North Natuna,” he told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
Since the 115 anti-illegal fishing task force led by former minister Susi Pudjiastuti was disbanded in December, the ministry has arrested just 19 foreign fishing vessels, comprising Vietnam-, Malaysia- and Philippine-flagged fishing boats — a far cry from previous endeavors.
Susi shot to fame during President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first term for her insistence to “sink the ships” of other countries, but her strong personality was increasingly seen as a liability to the President, especially when it came to dealing with countries whose ships she had downed.
She was replaced in Jokowi’s second term by Edhy Prabowo, an erstwhile lawmaker in the House of Representatives’ Commission IV overseeing marine resources.
Observers have long bemoaned the continued practice of illegal fishing by other countries, which is partly exacerbated by a lack of surveillance ships and regulations.
While Indonesia and Vietnam reached an agreement on a continental shelf boundary in 2003 after 30 years of negotiations, the two sides are still delimiting exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that some experts say will take many more years to settle.
An EEZ grants exclusive rights to the country that controls it to exploit the resources within the water column, but both sides have overlapping claims.
The claims have been a source of constant tension between the Southeast Asian neighbors, resulting in them agreeing to negotiate a “provisional arrangement” to prevent skirmishes at sea.
Vietnamese authorities have protested that their vessels were often caught in waters that both countries claimed as their own, but Haeru said he was “highly confident” that the latest boats to be seized were fishing well within Indonesia’s economic borders.
“Even if they protested, there is an avenue for the Foreign Ministry to resolve the issue,” he said, adding that the crewmen have been sent to Batam to undergo further legal processes.
The Vietnamese mission in Jakarta said it had not been informed of the arrest.
Vietnam itself has been preoccupied with its own maritime skirmishes with China, after one of its own fishing boats was sunk by a Chinese white hull near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea last week, according to local reports.
Hanoi lodged an official protest on Saturday, while the United States on Monday said it was “seriously concerned” about China’s actions and urged Beijing to instead focus on global efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read also: Jakarta asserts sovereign rights on Natuna
Indonesia was also caught in a diplomatic spat with China as early as December after it emerged that Chinese vessels had been illegally poaching in Indonesia’s EEZ for weeks.
This sparked the Indonesian government’s order for hundreds of fishermen from the Javanese coastline to populate the North Natuna Sea, although only a few dozen have heeded the call.