Indonesia’s new bill targets illegal fishing vessel owners

The government expects the bill to be passed this year, and says it will bring much-needed transparency to the fisheries industry.

small-scale fishermen
Small-scale fishermen are expected to benefit from the fisheries bill proposed by the ministry. Image: Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries via

The owners of ships engaged in illegal fishing in Indonesia could finally face criminal justice under proposed amendments to the country’s fisheries law, as the government seeks to foster a sustainable industry in one of the world’s richest fisheries.

The bill of amendments submitted to parliament by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries incorporates points from existing ministerial and presidential decrees issued after the passage of the 2009 Fisheries Act. These include bans on, among other things, foreign fishing vessels and crews; the transshipment of fish catches between vessels at sea; and foreign investment in the capture fisheries sector.

The ministry is also seeking authority for law enforcement agencies to burn and sink boats caught in the act of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, without having to wait for a guilty verdict from a court, as is currently required.

The most important point, though, is the proposed expansion of criminal punishment for perpetrators of illegal fishing. Under the current legislation, only those caught in the act of IUU fishing—typically boat crews—face prosecution, while the owners of the vessels avoid any kind of punishment.

“We never punish the corporate owners of [illegal fishing] vessels,” Susi Pudjiastuti, the fisheries minister, said during a public discussion on May 21 in Jakarta. “The result is that a syndication, a transnational organised crime [network] in fisheries, has flourished globally. This must not happen anymore.”

The ocean has the right to defend its existence, tend to its health, and ensure the sustainability of its resources

Sjarief Widjaja, head of capture fisheries, Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

The bill calls for criminal sanctions for corporate and beneficiary owners of vessels engaged in illegal fishing. It prescribes jail sentences for these owners that are one-third longer than the sentences handed down to their boat crews, and fines that are two-thirds higher.

“My hope for the [fisheries] bill is that it will improve weak fundamentals in the current law,” Susi said, adding that the proposed amendments were aimed at achieving sovereignty, sustainability and prosperity in Indonesia’s fisheries industry.

“I hope that the revisions can help Indonesia become the world’s maritime fulcrum,” she added.

Mas Achmad Santosa, who chairs a presidentially appointed task force on illegal fishing, said punishing the vessel owners and the corporate beneficiaries was part of a move toward greater transparency and law enforcement in the industry, and would serve as a deterrent effect.

“Good fisheries governance must be transparent, and fishing companies must be held responsible and accountable,” he said.

Up to 80 per cent of fishers operating in Indonesian waters are small-scale fishers, defined under the country’s laws as those with vessels smaller than 5 gross tonnage (GT). The proposed amendments will allow them to operate in all areas except the core zones of marine conservation areas. They will also be exempted from having to obtain operating permits, but will have to document and report their catches regularly to local authorities.

The fisheries ministry is also proposing new protections on the “rights of oceans,” and recognition of the role coastal communities play in marine conservation.

“The ocean actually has the right to defend its existence, tend to its health, and ensure the sustainability of its resources,” said Sjarief Widjaja, the ministry’s head of capture fisheries, adding that this was part of the government’s efforts “to achieve sustainable fisheries management.”

Discussions on the bill of amendments, between the fisheries ministry and the parliamentary commission that oversees marine, forestry and agriculture issues, began in April.

“We hope this bill will provide a solution to Indonesia’s marine woes, particularly in advocating for law enforcement against illegal fishing,” Edhy Prabowo, the commission chairman, said at the May 21 discussion. “At the same time, it must benefit our fishermen in [terms of] sovereignty and sustainability.”

Arif Satria, chancellor of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) and an expert on marine policy, said the bill would help improve the sustainability of Indonesia’s fisheries.

“By adding regulations on ocean rights, [the bill] could be categorized as ‘strong sustainability,’ because the law will not just acknowledge the rights of living things, but also those of non-living ones, like water,” Arif said.

Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia, said the proposed amendments would underpin a clearer path for sustainable marine resources management to flourish in the country.

“I think the sustainability aspect in this bill is stronger than the current fisheries law,” he said.

Arifsyah noted, though, that the language in some of the provisions was unclear, which could create loopholes for illegal fishing.

On the issue of transshipment, for instance, the bill bans the practice if carried out “without landing the catches at appointed fish ports or state-owned ports with customs facility.” Arifsyah said this could be interpreted to mean that transshipment was permitted as long as the catches were landed at certain ports.

The bill also exempts from the transshipment ban “support vessels for fishing operations that work between the fishing ground and the appointed ports.” Arifsyah said this could provide cover for illegal fishers to pass off their boats as support vessels.

This gray area, he warned, could blunt the impact of the transshipment ban. He noted that a regulation already exists stipulating a complete prohibition on transshipment in Indonesian waters. If the bill passes in its current form, it would take precedence over this much stronger regulation.

Arifsyah also said the bill should still limit foreign investment in the downstream fisheries sector, which includes processing and distribution, to prevent foreign control of the sector.

“There are Indonesian businesses in this sector that need government support, protection and guidance,” he said. “We are not against foreign investment, but the main players in the Indonesian fisheries industry must still be state-owned or local private companies.”

The draft is currently under review by the House’s legislative body, known as Baleg. However, the draft will have to be reviewed in a cabinet meeting and in a House’s plenary meeting before it can be passed into law.

Sjarief, the fisheries ministry official, said he was optimistic the bill would be passed this year. He added the ministry would also hold discussions with fishing companies and communities during the ongoing deliberations.

Arifsyah said it was important for the ministry to get the support of fishers, the private sector, marine experts and civil society groups to help pass the bill. It must also ensure that the administration of President Joko Widodo is committed to establishing a sustainable fisheries industry in Indonesia, he said.

“We hope this fisheries bill will be truly more progressive and clearer in establishing the three goals of sovereignty, sustainability and prosperity,” Arifsyah said.

This story was published with permission from

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