Back in September, the navy headquarters in Sorong, West Papua received information from the community marine protected area (MPA) patrol group that a Philippine fishing boat had entered Indonesian waters and was fishing illegally in the Ayau Asia MPA. During the night, the boat proceeded toward the Ayau Asia islands in search of fish and other marine life in shallower waters.
Upon receiving this news, the following day several MPA patrol teams, which are strongly supported by CI, set out to sea in search of the vessel. It wasn’t long before one of the teams captured the boat and arrested its 13 crew members, who were brought back to Sorong and detained for legal prosecution. Among the illegal catch found on the ship were Napoleon wrasse and green turtles, which were used as evidence for the subsequent court case. The boat had been underway for only two days before it was seized, giving fishermen little time to poach within these protected waters.
It took the official court in Sorong just over a month to complete the prosecution process and charge the arrested fishermen. Each was sentenced to eight months in prison, while the boat and all its equipment was confiscated and destroyed.
While it is not uncommon for illegal fishermen to be caught by MPA patrol teams in the Bird’s Head Seascape, the formal prosecution processes following their arrest are often ineffectual. This case’s successful prosecution represents a significant milestone for the Raja Ampat government in its fight to protect these beautiful, vital waters — and without the strong cooperation of local communities, this result would not have been possible.
Ayau Asia — where the illegal fishers were caught — is one of six MPAs officially established in the Raja Ampat archipelago since 2008. Raja Ampat is known to be one of the most diverse habitats on the planet for marine species.
Raja Ampat’s communities directly depend on these waters for a variety of uses, including fishing, coastal protection and a rapidly expanding dive tourism industry. Yet illegal fishing continues to threaten the long-term sustainability of all these benefits.
Illegal fishing is driven by the insatiable global demand for fish — and poor fishermen are driven by high profit margins to practice it. Shark fin soup and threatened species of tuna are in especially high demand, particularly in China and Japan.
Shark fishing is a lucrative pursuit worldwide — a brutal process in which fishermen cut off the shark’s fins and often discard the finless animal alive to sink and die. Unfortunately, Indonesia still ranks as the world’s largest supplier of shark fin. One kilogram of dried shark fin goes for anything from 1.8 million to 3 million rupiah (US$ 200–300).
According to the average reported catch between 2002 and 2005, which amounted to 4.7 million metric tons of fish and shellfish (excluding illegal and unreported catch), Indonesia ranked as the sixth most-important fishing nation in the world.
The rate of illegal fishers entering Raja Ampat’s waters remains steady, but law enforcement agencies have made significant progress in dealing with the issue since the program began eight years ago. Earlier this year, the Raja Ampat government declared its entire seascape Indonesia’s first shark sanctuary, a key step in protecting one of the ocean’s most essential and astounding predators.
The MPA patrol teams, comprised of community volunteers, continue to guard Raja Ampat’s waters to monitor activity and apprehend illegal vessels. Just three days after the capture of the boat in Ayau Asia, a team of MPA patrol teams captured two more illegal vessels in the waters of the Western Waigeo Islands, between the islands of Pam and Penemu. On board, illegal fishing gear including a diving compressor and nylon longlines were found and confiscated — items indicating that these fishermen were out to catch sharks, lobsters and sea cucumbers.
The patrol team’s work is never done; indeed, as stocks elsewhere are reduced, Raja Ampat’s marine bounty becomes increasingly attractive to illegal fishers. But CI-Indonesia is confident that with our support, the local government and communities can continue to effectively enforce the marine environmental laws necessary to protect Raja Ampat’s marine wealth for the benefit of future generations.
However, in order to successfully discourage illegal fishing, the strict but appropriate sentence in the Ayau Asia case must become more of a rule than an exception.
Carla Kerstan is an intern for CI-Indonesia.