The Natuna Regency, an archipelago of 272 islands in the South China Sea, is hot property – smack in the middle of one of the world’s busiest shipping and fishing routes.
Despite being closer to Malaysia and Singapore, the Natuna Islands are actually part of Indonesia and have become one of the biggest hotspots for illegal fishing in country.
In 2016, as many as 280 foreign vessels were discovered fishing illegally in just one area, at fishing Zone 711, just north of Natuna, according to a study of Radar Sat footage by the Infrastructure Development of Space and Oceanography project.
With illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing having depleted seafood stock in the South China Sea by up to 90% since the 1950s, fishers from across the region are being forced further from the shore to find catch, and closer to conflict with each other.
On the losing end are fishers like Endang Firdaus, 32, a native of Natuna who has been fishing in the area since 2010. IUU fishers have not only affected his income, they have also destroyed key coral reefs across his homeland with their trawling methods.
Having invested in his own boat at the price of IDR130 million ($9,000), Endang now fishes about 160 miles off the shores of Natuna, and he says he comes across foreign IUU ships, often from Vietnam, starting at the 50-mile mark.
Natuna fishermen are well-acquainted with the characteristics of foreign fishing vessels. Apart from frequently running into them, the fishermen often see them being brought to shore by authorities after being arrested. These ships are generally taller, made of steel and iron, and use wood of a different shape than Indonesian fishing boats.
Despite coming across them on a regular basis, fishers like Endang cannot really do much about it aside from documenting the encounters and submitting reports to Indonesian authorities. And whenever they see a foreign boat in a specific fishing point, they simply stop using that point.
“It’s out of fear. Our vessel is small compared to theirs, and they have dozens of people,” he said, adding that the foreign vessels often traveled in packs.
Hendri, chairperson of the Natuna Fishermen Alliance, said the fishers reported dozens of illegal fishing boats in Natuna every day. “It is as if they are not afraid to fish in Natuna anymore,” he said.
“When night falls, they are like a parade with their bright lights,” he said, adding that foreign boats drag their trawls in the daytime and gather in one location during the night. “We often find them 50 miles off of the outer regions of Natuna.”
According to Hendri, local authorities only tend to patrol and arrest illegal fishers whenever photos by the fishers go viral on social media.
To counter this rise in IUU fishing by foreign boats, the Indonesian government devised a plan in early 2020 to exert its sovereignty in the area. It would take a group of fishers from the Java Sea and relocate them over 1,000 kilometers away to the northern Natuna seas.
The idea was that, if the sea was full of Indonesian fishers, illegal boats wouldn’t encroach the area.
And so, on March 4, 2020, 30 fishing boats equipped with cantrang – a form of Danish seine net – departed a fishing port in Tegal City, Central Java, destined for the Natuna Regency. They were even escorted by the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency.
It was a trip that was meant to last two months, with the boats fishing in areas where native Natuna fishers normally wouldn’t.
After just one month, all the boats returned to Tegal, according to Riswanto, chairperson of the All Indonesian Fishermen Association. A boat owned by Riswanto was on the trip.
“The catches never covered our operational costs. We were [making] a loss,” he recalled. Moreover, the Natuna Sea’s characteristics were too foreign to the fishers, making them a challenge to navigate.
Based on Riswanto’s calculations, a fishing boat heading to Natuna would need a minimum of Rp500 million ($34,700), mainly to cover fuel costs. The journey to Natuna alone would take a week.
Additionally, the strong ocean currents made it challenging for them to spread their fishing nets, while inaccurate weather forecasts added to their challenges.
He also believes that the availability of fish in the region is seasonal. On one day, he recalls being able to catch only 15 kilograms of fish after an entire day’s work.
The illegal fishers, meanwhile, are able to exploit the Natuna area as they are often equipped with better technology, says Riswanto. They tend to have stronger boats, are involved in transshipment, and have sophisticated navigational technology.
Some of the other Indonesian fishers who tried their luck in Natuna came in traditional wooden boats. That was the case with Junaidi Arifin from West Kalimantan, one of the closest ports to Natuna from the main Indonesian archipelago.
“If [the government] cannot help us by supplying equipment, they need to change regulations to support local fishermen,” said Junaidi.
Riswanto said each fishing boat from Tegal lost an average of Rp 300 million ($20,700) and they still had to pay crew members their wages.
“The mission is to defend the country, but the 25 fishers are still the economic backbone for their family at home,” he said.
On top of that, fishers from the Natuna Regency were themselves not happy with the arrival of these other Indonesian boats.
The Natuna Fishermen Alliance were particularly concerned as the boats used cantrang, a fishing method where massive nets are dragged along the seabed, often destroying coral reefs that are crucial to the marine ecosystem.
Natuna fishers like Endang can usually see coral reefs marked through radar, but trawling boats like those that use cantrang often leave the seabed so damaged that the reefs could disappear in a day.
“It’s too damaged, there’s no longer a spot on our radar, so we have to look for another one,” said Endang, particularly about areas where foreign IUU vessels had fished.
In fact, cantrang fishing was once banned in Indonesia for this reason. Enacted by then-minister of maritime affairs and fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, the ban was eventually lifted by her successor, Edhy Prabowo.
Hendri believes that cantrang fishing has led to the decimation of marine life around the coastal areas of Natuna, where fishers could previously make a living by using conventional fishing rods in small boats.
“[The fishers] now have to go at least a minimum of four miles from the shore. There is more sand than coral reefs at the seaside,” he said.
Endang added that Edhy’s tenure saw the return of many foreign ships. “In Pak Edi’s era, it was extraordinary, [foreign ships] came in convoys!” he said.
Endang said he did not understand the cause, but he said Natuna was immediately “attacked” by foreign ships after the change in ministers. But the Natuna fishers’ complaints went unheeded.
In fact, there was to be even more bad news for them. In November 2020, a new regulation was passed (Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Regulation No. 59/2020), allowing cantrang boats to fish 12 miles from the shore, while Natuna fishers in smaller boats would have to fish zero to four miles from the coastline.
It was a move that, Hendri said, would “annihilate small fishers.”
Thankfully, the new regulation was short-lived. In December 2020, Wahyu Trenggono replaced Edhy as minister of maritime affairs and fisheries, and, by May 2021, he had revised the regulation to prohibit a number of environmentally-destructive fishing methods, including Danish seines, pair seines, and cantrang.
However, Hendri assessed that this new regulation still did not favor Natuna fishermen. He added that it did not support efforts to protect marine ecosystems nor guaranteed the sustainability of traditional fishermen’s livelihoods.
“New fishing gear have emerged [to replace the banned trawling methods], namely bagged fishing nets, which have the same operational methods, construction, and specifications [as the cantrang nets],” he said, when contacted in June 2021 about the ruling.
“So we Natuna fishermen will continue to fight against cantrang and trawling or any other substitute fishing gear [that is similar in nature],” he said.
As for the boats from Tegal, they never returned to Natuna, though the Indonesian government is still looking for ways to populate the Natuna seas with its fishers. – Rappler.com
This story is part of Oceans Inc.’s “Fishers on the Frontlines,” which explores how fisherfolk across the South China Sea have been impacted by IUU fishing and the ongoing maritime territorial dispute.
Oceans Inc. is a collaborative investigation by the Environmental Reporting Collective, involving 23 journalists from over a dozen countries looking into IUU fishing. Follow the full investigation at www.oceansinc.earth.