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Indonesia Leads the Way on Mapping Fishermen

Indonesian navy crew (right) check one of seven fishing boats destroyed in Batam, Kepulauan Riau province on February 22, 2016

Indonesian navy crew (right) check one of seven fishing boats destroyed in Batam, Kepulauan Riau province on February 22, 2016 (AFP Photo/Sei Ratifa)

With its announcement at a United Nations conference last month, Indonesia became the first nation to commit to publish the exact location and activity of its commercial fishing fleet.  The decision was announced at a U.N. conference on the ocean, and calls for Indonesia to publish Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data on the mapping platform of Global Fishing Watch,  an independent 501c3 organization founded and supported by Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google.

Solely a tool of transparency, Global Fishing Watch allows citizens, journalists, researchers, commercial interests and governments to track some 60,000 fishing vessels in near real time, using satellite systems and publicly broadcast Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from ships at sea.   AIS signals cover the majority of all industrial-sized commercial fishing vessels (those exceeding a capacity of 100 Gross Tons which average around 24 meters).  Smaller vessels are not required to carry AIS, though can be tracked using government-owned VMS data.

Indonesia’s announcement follows concerns over increased illegal fishing activity in the South China Sea, and several incidents of ramming between fishing vessels and coast guard vessels of various nations.  Indonesia, the second largest producer of wild-caught seafood in the world, will add some 5,000 vessels to the database of Global Fishing Watch.

Since Beijing claims some 90% of the South China Sea, many Chinese fishing boats operate in the exclusive economic zones of other countries with the support of Beijing.  Chinese officials often argue its fishing fleets are operating in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds,” a position which was recently refuted by an international court in The Hague under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) signed by China.

This position often draws the ire of countries such as Indonesia, which has been particularly tough on illegal fishing, following the appointment of Susi Pudjiastuti as Minister of Fisheries and Marine Affairs.  Susi has drawn widespread support from Indonesians for her crackdowns on illegal fishing, after years of the government downplaying incidents (especially  in 2010 and 2013) over concerns Beijing could cut investment in Indonesia.  

The decision by Indonesian authorities to support better fishing transparency may help prevent confusion over incidents such as last year’s ramming of an Indonesian Ministry of Fishery and Marine Affairs patrol ship by a Chinese coast guard vessel in March 2016.  According to media reports, a 300-ton Chinese fishing vessel had been illegally fishing about 4 kilometres off Indonesia’s Natuna island chain.  The Indonesian patrol ship confronted the Chinese fishing vessel, detained its crew, and proceeded to tow it to Indonesian shores.  Before they reached shore, a Chinese coast guard vessel came to the rescue, ramming the Chinese fishing boat, and eventually prying it free, boarding it, and sailing it away.  The Chinese Foreign Ministry argued the incident occurred within “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” and the Chinese coast guard ship assisted the seized Chinese fishing boat without entering Indonesian territorial waters.

Beijing is not expected to publish the location and activity of its commercial fishing fleet anytime soon, but other nations’ efforts toward greater transparency of their own fleets may help protect their fishermen when operating in their exclusive economic zones.  Indonesia’s intention to map its own fleet is an effort toward much-needed transparency, and by working with an independent organization, Jakarta could effectively set the standard in the South China Sea and shame any further efforts by Beijing to claim “traditional fishing grounds”.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666