Indonesia’s decision to sink a dozen fishing boats on Saturday is a reminder for Asean that illegal fishing is a serious region problem that requires concrete solutions, not more meetings and lip service.
Theft from the South China Sea and our region’s other waters is nothing new.
Asean members have long been at loggerheads over illegal fishing in their special economic zones or territorial waters.
Thailand has faced repeated incursions from Vietnamese trawlers in the Gulf of Thailand, while Thai crews are frequently caught fishing illicitly in Indonesian waters.
In the latest incident, Indonesia has accused Vietnam’s coastguard of endangering a crew’s life by ramming one of its naval boats.
Jakarta summoned the Vietnamese envoy and warned him that the aggressive action violated the spirit of international law and Asean friendship.
Indonesia has long borne the brunt of this regional problem thanks to its rich marine resources spread over a huge territory which is difficult to police.
The sore point is that foreign boats either fishing illegally or exceeding their permitted quotas.
Jakarta has decided on the drastic deterrent of sinking any boats found trawling its seas illegally.
More than 50 trawlers, mostly from Vietnam and Malaysia, are scheduled to be scuttled in Indonesian waters over the next fortnight.
Authorities say the action is necessary to warn neighbouring countries that Jakarta is serious about fighting illegal fishing that causes serious economic losses.
The stiff penalty has, however, startled Asean neighbours.
Since President Joko Widodo took office in 2014, hundreds of captured foreign fishing vessels have been sunk – more than half of them from Vietnam.
The practice was suspended for several months before being resumed last week after the Vietnamese coastguard boat rammed an Indonesian naval vessel that was attempting to seize an illegal trawler.
A dozen fishermen were detained and remain in Indonesian custody.
Illegal fishing previously came under Asean’s radar for attracting sanctions from the EU, a major market for the region’s seafood.
Asean members declared a joint “war” on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in 2016 after many countries in the region received a “yellow card” warning from the EU.
Bangkok was hit with the warning in 2015 and took nearly four years to improve conditions in the sector before finally earning an upgrade in January.
Vietnam was the latest to get an EU yellow card, in October 2017, and that ongoing status is causing anxiety in a country heavily dependent on its seafood exports.
Thailand, as this year’s chair of Asean, is now at the forefront of efforts to combat illegal fishing in the region, last month hosting an Asean-EU meeting on combating IUU fishing.
The meeting concluded with plans to establish a taskforce where member countries can share information, coordinate law enforcement and draw up measures for sustainable fishing in the region.
This Asean agreement is unlikely, however, to be tough enough to satisfy Indonesia, which is bearing the economic brunt of the problem.
The group needs a new and effective concrete solution that ensures all members enjoy peaceful and fair division of Asean’s fishery resources. The Nation (THAILAND)/Asia News Network