Indonesia’s newly minted investigators to go after illegal fishing barons

The move comes in the wake of a court ruling that empowers ministry officials to act as investigators, including the authority to look into cases of money laundering.

Indonesian Naval Coast Guard
Soldiers from the Indonesian Navy patrol the Madura Strait.  Image: Naval Surface WarriorsCC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Indonesia is scaling up its fight against fisheries-related crimes, going beyond boat crews to target the ultimate beneficiaries of these illegal practices.

The country’s fisheries ministry announced the move in the wake of a Constitutional Court decision in June that allows civil servants to investigate certain criminal acts.

“The civil servant investigators can now follow the trail of assets of the criminals in the fisheries and marine sector for signs of money laundering,” Adin Nurawaluddin, the ministry’s director-general of marine and fisheries resources monitoring, said in a statement.

Indonesia hosts one of the world’s richest fisheries. But the industry is notorious for its convoluted webs of corporate ownership and vessel registration, often spread across various jurisdictions, which help mask the true ownership — the ultimate beneficiaries — of fishing activity, both legal and illegal.

A 2020 paper by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy says the perpetrators behind organised crime in the fisheries industry are companies with complex operational activities in many countries. Some of these crimes are corporate in nature, as in the laundering of criminal proceeds through offshore financial centers where ownership can’t be traced.

Changing the investigators’ mindset from the conventional approach to the multi-door one requires skill advancement, patience and intense partnership with local and global organisations and experts. 

Mas Achmad Santosa, chief executive of Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative

Adin said his office would partner with the KPK, Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, and the PPATK, the anti-money-laundering agency, in bringing transparency to these activities. He said they would help with digital forensics, expert testimony, and transaction analysis. The ministry itself has just over 450 civil servant investigators, 185 of whom are licensed to investigate money laundering.

Marine observers have praised the ministry’s pledge to target beneficial owners in fisheries crimes, calling it an important step in cracking down on the practice. For a long time, the only people who faced any kind of prosecution for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing were typically the crews of the vessels caught in the act; the owners of the vessels, where they could be identified, avoided any kind of punishment.

To go after the latter, said Mas Achmad Santosa, chief executive of the NGO Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI), the fisheries ministry investigators must seek out evidence beyond that recovered from boat seizures.

IOJI estimates that IUU fishing costs Indonesia at least $4 billion per year in lost revenue.

In 2016, the government established the International FishFORCE Academy of Indonesia (IFFAI), which trains prosecutors and judges in fisheries law, to encourage them to pursue the maximum punishment allowable against vessel owners in order to create a deterrent effect.

Mas Achmad, who previously chaired a presidentially appointed task force on illegal fishing, said the fisheries ministry should revise the current fisheries law to include punishment for companies and for owners not listed on deeds of incorporation but who control and benefit from the business.

In 2018, the fisheries ministry submitted amendments to the fisheries law to parliament, calling for those changes, among others. But with both parliament and government preoccupied with campaigning ahead of elections the following year, the bill was never passed.

“Changing the investigators’ mindset from the conventional approach to the multi-door one requires skill advancement, patience and intense partnership with local and global organisations and experts,” Mas Achmad said.

The fisheries ministry must also ensure transparency and no conflicts of interest throughout its investigations, even if the evidence points toward ministry officials, said Afdillah, ocean campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

“The fisheries ministry must prove to the public that this isn’t merely lip service,” Afdillah said.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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