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Indonesian minister rebukes China: “Your fishermen in our waters are criminals”

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s minister for fisheries and maritime affairs, has a strong message for China, owner of the world’s largest fishing fleet.

“What they are doing is not fishing, it is transnational organised crime,” she tells This Week in Asia after a press conference in Jakarta. “You should write that. They need to understand.”

The straight-talking, self-made businesswoman, who is known as much for her chain-smoking and tattoos as her no-nonsense approach to policy, has been holding forth on her favourite topic: the pillaging of her country’s waters by foreign fishermen.

“We have had several disagreements [with China] on issues of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, they still disagree that it classifies as transnational crime,” she says, ahead of this month’s Our Oceans Conference in Bali. “But mostly these are China-origin vessels [with] multinational crews.

“Without international cooperation, we will not be able to fight this.”

In four years, Indonesia has banned 10,000 foreign-registered vessels from fishing in its waters, half of which have been more than 500 gross tonnes (GT). Hundreds of vessels have since been seized and sunk – in some cases blown up on Pudjiastuti’s orders, as a deterrent to others.

They have come from mainland China, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines. Some have disguised their true origins by sailing under multiple flags or being registered to proxy companies in Indonesia or elsewhere.

China has expressed serious concern over the destruction of vessels and, two years ago, said it would take action against overfishing and the fishing industry’s overexpansion, including cutting down the number of fishing vessels.

Last week, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said Chinese authorities would impose “zero tolerance” punishment on domestic vessels found to have violated laws and regulations in high-sea fishing, according to the hawkish tabloid Global Times.

Deputy director of Sea Fishery Administration Liu Xinzhong was quoted as saying China cared more about the protection and sustainability of marine resources than other countries thought.

But according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, more than a third of the world’s commercial fish stocks are being diminished at unsustainable rates.

With domestic Chinese fish stocks among those declining at speed, in part due to growing demand for high-quality, fresh seafood from middle-class consumers, Beijing appears also to be increasingly encouraging “distant water fishing” far beyond its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“A 100 GT vessel in a year can catch 2,000 tonnes of fish. It’s millions of tonnes, billions of dollars,” Pudjiastuti says. “It’s a multinational big business. They call it fishing. We call it crime. We do disagree [with China] on that.”

Ministers and heads of state from 35 nations are to attend this month’s Our Oceans Conference along with 200 non-governmental and private sector organisations. Maritime security, climate change and pollution of the seas will be on the agenda as well as overfishing.

But so far China – like many of Indonesia’s neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – will not be sending any high-level delegations.

Undeterred, Pudjiastuti says she has in her corner many island or coastal nations that are most vulnerable to over-fishing and climate change, and she will campaign for increased monitoring and enforcement of existing protected territories such as marine conservation areas.

She points out Chinese fishermen have been caught poaching sharks as far away as the Galapagos islands in the Southern Pacific Ocean, one of the world’s ecological treasures.

“How can fishermen travel three-quarters of the world’s surface and take 400 tonnes of sharks from a maritime-protected area?” Pudjiastuti asks, exasperated.

“Hopefully with interest and international cooperation on traceability, legality required to declare catch in ports, China will finally understand that they have to accommodate international concerns on distant fishing.”