05/21/2015, 00.00
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Jakarta cracks down on illegal fishing by sinking 41 foreign vessels

Ships from China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines are now at the bottom of the sea. With Indonesian President Widodo taking a hard-line position, tensions in the South China Sea could worsen. Now, a deal on disputed maritime borders seems unlikely.

Jakarta (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Indonesian Navy has sunk 41 foreign vessels accused of illegal fishing in Indonesian territorial waters, including boats from China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. Some of the boats were blown up with dynamite and left to sink.

One of the ships sunk was a 300-gross-tonne Chinese vessel caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters in the South China Sea. This is the first time Indonesian authorities have gone after a Chinese ship.

"Without the continued fight against illegal fishing, we won't be able to improve the welfare of our fishermen," Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said. "This is not a show of force. This is just merely enforcing our laws," she added.

President Joko Widodo has taken a hard-line approach to illegal fishing since taking office in October, vowing to stamp out a practice he says costs Southeast Asia's biggest economy billions of dollars in lost revenues each year.

According to Indonesian authorities, illegal foreign fishing has also caused huge environmental damage because of the widespread use of explosives and cyanide, which wipe out fish habitat.

However, Indonesia’s hard-line stance against illegal fishing runs the risk of infuriating its neighbours, in a region that has been the scene of clashes for years.

In addition to natural gas and oil, the South China Sea accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the global catch

Fishing is all the more crucial for Asia as fish accounts for 22 per cent of the protein intake by the continent’s populations, compared to a global average of only 16 per cent. For instance, the Chinese eat almost twice as much fish as the world average (26.3 kg per person vs 16.9 kg).

Additionally, large parts of the coastal populations of China, Vietnam and the Philippines rely on fishing for their livelihood, making it a potent cause for conflict.

At the same time, declining catch rates in traditional fish grounds as well as coastal pollution have pushed local fishermen to ship further from their coast where sovereignty over water is disputed.

Smaller-scale fishing incidents happen regularly between Vietnamese, Filipino and Chinese vessels, as those countries‘  historical fish grounds overlap.

In 2013, after the ten ASEAN member states and China failed to implement a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002, China and ASEAN resumed negotiations over a binding code of conduct, thanks to the mediation of Thailand and Indonesia.

However, the achievement of a concrete agreement seems highly uncertain in a near future.

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