Something Fishy in Sumatra

By: Anucha Charoenpo

BELAWAN, NORTH SUMATRA – Life has never been easy for the fisherfolk in this remote village in Indonesia, but it has gotten even harder in the last decade. Since 1988, Belawan has played an unwilling host to hordes of trawlers that come all the way from Thailand to engage in illegal fishing here and, say the locals, destroy coral reefs in the process.

As a result, the once fertile fishing grounds of Belawan, some 35 kms from the provincial capital Medan, now yield little fish and the local fisherfolk have been left scrambling to seek other means of livelihood.
Ironically, that has included supplying the Thai trawlers that still come over and fish whatever is left in the Belawan waters. The locals supply the foreign vessels with goods such as rice, fruit, soap, and shampoo, which they exchange for fish that they hope to sell in the market.

It’s a rather cruel compromise for the Belawan fisherfolk to endure, but many of them say they are just trying to be practical. After all, their traditional single-layer nets and simple fishhooks can barely compete with the modern equipment and technology of the foreign vessels, and all their pleas to the authorities for help seem to have been ignored. There are about 20,000 people in Belawan, most of whom depend on traditional fishing for their livelihood – or at least they used to.

Wahidin, chair of the Anera, the traditional fishing association in Belawan Lama village, says he has seen navy officers approach the illegal Thai trawlers in the Malacca Straits many times, but he has yet to see them arrest any of the interlopers.

“I have even asked the navy officers about the incidents and they said to me that they were working and it was not my business,” says Wahidin. Navy and Marine officers said as much to this writer, repeating that they were too busy.

An increasingly common problem
In any case, Belawan’s sorry fish tale is one that is familiar throughout Southeast Asia, where poaching the marine resources of another country has become all too common, especially in recent years. In the Philippines, for instance, Chinese and Vietnamese fishers are now getting caught more and more frequently while casting their nets within Philippine territory. Malaysian and Indonesian authorities, meanwhile, have collared Filipinos fishing illegally in their respective waters.

There are several reasons for such a development, but among the major ones are unsustainable fishing practices, which have forced ordinary fisherfolk to travel farther and farther away to just to get a near-respectable haul. The Thais are prime examples of this, having squandered their own marine resources so much in the past three decades that an increasing number of Thai trawlers have been traveling to Indonesia, whose waters are still relatively rich.

Indonesians have long noted the presence of Thai fishing vessels in their territory, but since the 1980s, the number of Thai trawlers has risen so sharply that Indonesians now consider them a serious economic threat.

Indonesian authorities estimate that each year, more than 3,000 Thai vessels head for Indonesian waters near the Malacca Straits, the South China Sea, and the Arafura Sea to fish illegally for tuna and mackerel. By the Indonesians’ calculations, these activities have been robbing the country of as much as $ 1.2 billion to $2.4 billion worth of potential catch, since many of the vessels are operating illegally.

Since 1953, Indonesia has allowed foreign trawlers to operate in its waters, but under strict regulations. For one, a foreign vessel has to obtain from the government a license costing up to $30,000 each. For another, the vessel has to sell its catch in the local market, so that it forms part of Indonesia’s exports to Malaysia and Singapore, which in turn will process and export them to Japan.

But according to Indonesia’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Rokhmin Dahuri, thousands of Thai vessels have not obtained licenses, which should have been fetching Indonesia anywhere between $75 million to $90 million per year by now.

Bribes and lost revenues
There is also the matter of unpaid taxes. Once the foreign vessels sell the fish in the local market, they are expected to pay taxes equivalent to 2.5 percent of the value of their catch. In the case of the Thais, the unpaid dues are estimated to be now reaching at least $30 million a year. Worse, the Thais are bringing home the fish they catch in Indonesia, and then exporting a sizeable share to Japan, one of Indonesia’s end markets.

All told, says Rokhmin, the illegal practices of many Thai vessels alone translate to an annual earnings loss of as much as $4 billion for the Indonesian fishing industry.

Jakarta has tried several measures to curb the illegal activities of Thai and other foreign fishing vessels. The monitoring system now includes the use of satellite communication devices, community-based surveillance, and increased marine patrol.

But Thai fishing companies have been among those believed to be paying hefty sums to some corrupt Indonesian authorities – especially those belonging to the navy and the coast guards – so that they can continue their activities undisturbed.

“It’s not easy to control them from Jakarta,” says Ali Sularso, a senior navy officer attached to the Navy headquarters in the Indonesian capital, referring to naval officials on the take. “Indonesia is a big country and it’s difficult to prove bribe-taking, especially when it happens at sea.”
In fairness, many Thai fishing firms have also been deceived into buying fake licenses from their Indonesian counterparts. Maritime Affairs and Fishery Ministry information officer Budi Antoko says that although the fake license costs much less than the genuine one, it can still leave a hole in the unsuspecting buyer’s pocket, with a going rate of between $10,000 to $20,000 a year.

Tension between Thais and locals
Once in a while, the authorities do arrest illegal foreign fishers. In the last few years, more than 100 Thai fishers have been arrested and detained by Indonesian authorities. Witthaya Chaisuwan of the Thai embassy in Jakarta believes that at present, there may be hundreds of Thai fishers being detained in local jails throughout the country.
But Witthaya may have difficulty finding a sympathetic ear among Indonesians. Here in Belawan, for example, the Thais’ business dealings with the locals have not necessarily resulted in better relations. As it is, many Belawans are now gathering seashells instead of fishing because of the unwanted visitors. M. Syafri, chair of another local fishing group, says that it is rather difficult to harvest the seashells since they have to dive quite deep to get them. Fortunately enough, the seashells fetch a high price at the market.

Locals say that in the past, authorities arrested and detained some illegal Thai fishers. Three Thai fishing trawlers that were seized by authorities several years ago are in fact still at the navy port. Rami, a Belawan fisher, says there was a fourth one, but it has since sunk, after being unused for years.

The Belawan fishers say, however, that there are no longer any Thais being arrested, even though the foreigners’ vessels are still very visible from shore.

These days, the Thais also do not go onshore because of “security reasons,” says Syafri. But some locals say it is they who are afraid of the Thais, recalling that some six years ago, one of the foreigners shot and killed a villager for refusing to pay for a damaged fishing net.

“Today, local fisherfolk call that area ‘shooting area,’” says Raimi. “No local fisher dares to pass (there).”