Indonesian Government Sinks Vietnamese Shark Poaching Boat, Creates New Dive Site

sinking of illegal fishing vessel in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

This morning in Raja Ampat, police detonated a single charge placed in the hull of the ship to sink it perfectly onto a sandy bottom, where it will now become a new dive site attraction. (© Conservation International/photo by Julius Thonak)

Two years ago, we proudly blogged that the Raja Ampat government in the Indonesian province of West Papua had taken the bold step of passing a law protecting all species of sharks and rays in its waters (the first such law in Southeast Asia!) in recognition of the tremendous ecological and economic benefits to both fisheries and tourism of healthy elasmobranch populations.

This law rapidly gained national traction, and a year later I was delighted to congratulate the Indonesian government on its move to create the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary.

Raja Ampat's manta populations are at the center of a thriving marine tourism industry that is now the primary economic driver of the region. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

Raja Ampat’s manta populations are at the center of a thriving marine tourism industry that is now the primary economic driver of the region. (© Shawn Heinrichs)

At the time, the global response to these announcements was largely positive, though there were a number of skeptics who openly wondered if the Indonesian government would actually take enforcement of these laws seriously. So, as these two laws celebrate their first and second year anniversaries, it seems like a good time to ask: How effective have they been at deterring poachers and protecting these valuable species?

fish swirl around jetty, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Raja Ampat’s reefs and fish stocks have been recovering spectacularly under strict protection since 2008. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

Having just come off a two-week expedition in Raja Ampat, I can say that unquestionably Raja’s sharks and mantas are looking healthier than I’ve ever seen them in 14 years of diving there. Our team regularly encountered feeding groups of 10–30 mantas, photographed a number of pregnant females, tagged several juvenile mantas in the Wayag nursery lagoon and watched with delight as a monthly shark feeding — conducted by our partner Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre to monitor population size — rapidly attracted nearly 40 blacktip reef sharks to the shallow waters under their jetty.

But what about enforcement? It’s an unfortunate reality that as Raja Ampat’s fish populations rebound, the region’s waters are increasingly targeted by outside poachers, which expands the need for adequate enforcement. Fortunately, I’m very pleased to note that all levels of government — from the local Raja Ampat government up to the president of Indonesia himself — are taking this marine enforcement very seriously in defense of their coastal communities’ livelihoods.

Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s “maritime axis” vision for sustainable economic development in the world’s largest archipelago,  he has instructed the Indonesian Navy and Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries to aggressively pursue a policy of publicly sinking any large illegal fishing vessels caught in Indonesian waters as a warning to others. In the waning months of 2014, the navy burned and sank six foreign illegal fishing vessels.

This morning, the Raja Ampat police followed suit and sank a large Vietnamese ship that was captured on January 19th with over two tons of drying shark fins, strips of flesh from at least five manta rays and nearly 50 hawksbill sea turtles in its hold.

Raja Ampat water police boarding the illegal Vietnamese shark-finning ship. (© Conservation International/photo by Julius Thonak)

Raja Ampat water police boarding the illegal Vietnamese shark-finning ship. (© Conservation International/photo by Julius Thonak)

dead sharks and rays found on illegal Vietnamese fishing boat

Shark fins, strips of ray meat, and even whole sharks were found drying on the Vietnamese ship captured in southern Raja Ampat in late January. The ship had over 2 tons of dried shark fins on board. (© Conservation International/photo by Kris Thebu)

Though it appears much of this grisly cargo was captured outside of Raja Ampat, the ship was spotted deploying a massive drift gillnet in southern Raja Ampat by community members. They immediately reported it to the police, who took the ship into custody and, in coordination with the Ministry of Fisheries, decided to sink the ship publicly. In this case, the decision was made not to burn the ship first, but rather to sink it in a strategic location to create a new dive site attraction — a fitting end for the poaching vessel.

Last week, while preparations for sinking this vessel were underway, two more illegal boats were caught in northern Raja Ampat. The two ships from the island of Sulawesi were caught by local community rangers and water police while in the act of detonating homemade explosives (“fish bombs”) on the reefs of Sayang Island in the Wayag marine park.

homemade "fish bombs" seized on illegal fishing vessel in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Some of the 170 homemade bottle bombs uncovered on the bomb-fishing ships. (© Conservation International/photo by Abdy Hassan)

All 21 crew members were immediately arrested, and police found over 170 fish bombs on board, plus the materials needed to make hundreds more. The police have publicly committed to prosecute these fishers to the fullest extent of the law, and plans are being made to sink these two ships as well.

illegal fishers arrested at Wayag ranger post, Indonesia

The 21 crew of the two bomb-fishing boats under arrest at the Wayag ranger post. (© Conservation International/photo by Abdy Hassan)

At the national level, the news is similarly heartening. The new minister of marine affairs and fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has been leading the charge to shut down the illegal export of manta ray gill rakers to China.  With the strong technical support of our partner the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Marine Wildlife Crimes Unit, the ministry and national police successfully conducted sting operations between August and November 2014 that resulted in the arrests of five of the top manta traders in Indonesia and the November confiscation of a large shipment of 227 pounds [103 kilograms] of dried manta gill rakers in Bali. And just last week, the ministry announced the successful first prosecution of one of the arrested traders, who received a 16 month prison sentence!

The government’s strong stance seems to be having a direct impact on the illegal trade. WCS reports that preliminary data from its monitoring efforts at known manta-hunting sites reveal that fishers are increasingly unable to sell manta parts, presumably as a result of the crackdown.

Overall, the news is definitely increasingly positive for Indonesia’s long-suffering sharks and rays. This progress highlights just how quickly a seemingly intractable environmental problem can be addressed with concerted political will and the support of passionately committed conservation organizations.

Wayag lagoon, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Northern Raja Ampat’s Wayag marine park, where two bomb-fishing boats were captured last week. (© Will Turner)

Just two short years ago, it was hard to imagine that the world’s largest shark and ray fishing nation could switch gears so rapidly and become a true “hope spot” for elasmobranchs. If that doesn’t prove that we can make a difference, I don’t know what will.

Mark Erdmann is CI’s vice president for Asia-Pacific Marine Programs, now based in Auckland after 23 years in Indonesia.


  1. Heather says

    This is so encouraging to hear! The kind of management I learned about through text books not that long ago is now being put into action and working. It’s exciting to think what can happen if implemented throughout….

    1. Robert Thomson says

      Heather, meanwhile here in the United States there is a Cownose Ray killing contest in New England that is allowed to indiscriminately kill pregnant rays for a contest. They are dragged out of the water onto a boat and the person with the highest weight count wins the contest, so if the Ray is pregnant it is a bonus for the killer. We are such hypocrites. The people here in this country demand that other nations protect sea-life yet we indiscriminately kill Marine mammals, Bison, Wolves, Prairie dogs and just about any living thing that can be shot by some “brave hunter” (gun nut)

      1. FriedrichKling says

        Wow, so sick to believe these wildlife killing contests are still happening today. There’s no law to prevent this?

      2. Evan says

        *Sigh*, shaking head in sorrow… It’s unfortunate but all we can do is set an example by our own actions.

      3. mike says

        So spread the news, tell people on the interweb… make a petition on causes, avaaz or some other website lkke that. Let enough people know and maybe that will change. I’ve only seen about 3, 4 cowtail rays while diving before, seems crazy people wanna hunt them, they’re so cool to look at!

  2. Toby says

    While I do not condone the fishermen illegally fishing in the reserve its a stupid idea to sink the the boat, without proper preparation, were the oil sumps and petrol tanks drained, was it cleaned and prepped before sinking, may as well throw junk over a reef as it looks like it was dumped fairly close to shore and onto a reef. Surely it should be towed back to a harbour and dismantled.

    I don’t think Conservation International should be condoning that particular action. Furthermore, one illegal fishing vessel caught is the tip of the iceberg and is propaganda for the park authorities who wish to be seen doing a successful job, I assure you there are many more vessels from all over Asia fishing in protected areas on a daily basis that are not being caught.

    1. Molly Bergen says

      Here is Mark Erdmann’s response:

      “Thanks for your comments and concerns, which I’ll address separately. With respect to the environmental impacts of the ship sinking, your quite valid concerns were in fact already addressed – I simply didn’t have the space in my blog to provide details. Planning for the ship sinking was conducted over a period of 3 weeks and numerous meetings between the Raja Ampat police, fisheries and tourism departments and environmental NGOs. Initially the plan was to sink the vessel in deep water (>500m), but then the tourism department lobbied to have the ship sank in an area where it could become a dive attraction. Due consideration was given to the best location, and this was chosen on a sandy slope (no coral reef, promise!) off Saonek Munde Island. Instructions were also given for cleaning the vessel of all fuel, lubricants, and ballast water before the sinking. As such, I feel quite happy to condone the activity, which gave due consideration to the environment.

      “With respect to your comment about this vessel only being the tip of the iceberg of illegal vessels poaching in Asian MPAs, I certainly would not disagree with your statement. However, I would only point out that my blog was specifically focused on the Raja Ampat MPA network, where there has been active enforcement of the MPAs by joint community and police patrols since 2007. I feel quite confident in saying that these MPAs are amongst the best-patrolled in Asia, and I certainly feel that as much praise as possible should be given to the Raja Ampat government, police and communities for their efforts – note that I also mentioned in my blog another 2 blast fishing boats captured by police and communities in northern Raja Ampat just after the Vietnamese ship was captured, so this was by no means a “one off” event. At the national level, the committment of President Jokowi and Minister Susi Pudjiastuti to combatting large scale illegal fishing and in seriously enforcing the manta ray protection act is also in my opinion highly praiseworthy. These are not merely publicity stunts, but represent serious committments of state resources to real environmental enforcement. There is still of course a long way to go, but in the 23 years I’ve lived and worked in Indonesia, I can say with confidence that this is the most impressive display of political will towards marine environmental protection I’ve yet seen – and I believe this is very much worthy of praise for all those involved.”

    2. Shawn says

      @Toby I know this is a third world country but if they are smart enough to enforce laws that specifically protect their reefs they are smart enough not to make an oil slick on it!! Maybe you should read the article before you post “They immediately reported it to the police, who took the ship into custody and, in coordination with the Ministry of Fisheries, decided to sink the ship publicly. In this case, the decision was made not to burn the ship first, but rather to sink it in a strategic location to create a new dive site attraction — a fitting end for the poaching vessel.

      Last week, while preparations for sinking this vessel were underway”

      1. Terry says

        I had the opportunity to dive on this wreck last August with local people.
        I was not enthusiastic to dive this spot but I didn’t see plastic or bottle or anything inside. For sure, it has been cleared off.
        The good surprise was to see a lot of marine life on and inside the wreck.
        Really encouraging!!!

  3. Phil Karp says

    It is encouraging to hear about the attention to enforcement, as well as recovery of the reefs. While enforcement is important, it is equally vital to ensure that the fisher communities that are involved (whether legally or otherwise) in removal of sharks and mantas will benefit from their protection. It means little to a local fisher, who is barely able to sustain his/her family, that protecting a shark, or a manta, will generate more in tourism dollars than what he/she will get from the fins gill rakers. Whether through involving these communities in ecotourism, or committing to use tax revenues from ecotourism to improve their housing, education and healthcare, it is critical to look not only at the “big picture” of valuing natural capital, but also to ensure that it results in improving lives. More here:

  4. Mickey Rosenau says

    Mark – – This is indeed wonderful news with which to start our day. Active, aggressive enforcement with significant penalties for violators is required and it is nice to hear that this does sometimes happen. Ellen joins me in expressing our personal thanks to you and your colleagues – – and Indonesian officials – – for these protection efforts.

  5. Blanche D'Anastasi says

    There are nets sinking with that boat, as well as paint which may or may not contain toxic antifoulants. At a minimum, they have just created and ghost net that will keep fishing megafauna.

    This is a poorly constructed media piece with a poor spin as the benefit of an artificial reef/dive site is unclear in this particular circumstance and may prove harmful to the environment that CI is working so hard to protect.

    1. Robert Thomson says

      Blanche D’Anastasi, do you really think they would leave nets on board the boat? You may be correct about the paint but I doubt if the concentrations of chemicals in the paint, deteriorating over time, is going to cause much of a problem.

    2. Budiarto says

      Hi Blanche,

      From what i read from indonesian news, the ship had been cleared off every possible toxic or chemical that could hurt the marine, even the engines and oil had been removed completely before sinking the ship.

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  7. Bert van Baar says

    Great news! And when you think about it: it is one of the biggest countries in Asia; it streches for thousands of miles, so a great marine territory is now somewhat more protected!
    Best news of this week!

  8. Taylor says

    This is one of the most delightful conservation stories I have read. It is encouraging to hear the Indonesian government is taking it so seriously and hopefully this will send a message to other Asian countries to follow suite. I also agree with the comment about how the first world demand these areas protected but don’t do much themselves. In regards to that, it is the job of the people to help spread stories like this and support conservation initiatives and prove that conservation and preservation is what we care about and it is the area that as a global population we are willing to support.

  9. FriedrichKling says

    For far too long the penalty for committing wildlife crimes is a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile 150 species are being driven extinct every 24 hours. So kudos to Indonesia for making it known that crimes against nature will be treated as serious offenses!!!!!

  10. Budiarto says

    I am an Indonesian people. When i was reading this news, i was so touched that our hardwork had been recognize by international people and hope that everyone that read this could keep supporting our country. we have the largest archipelago in the world with more than 17,000 islands, and your recognation will make us work harder and feel that our hardwork had payed off. Thank you

    1. Evan says

      Budiarto, the fact that there is a growing awareness of how critical these keystone species are to the ocean and ultimately the food chain fills me with hope. Rock on Indonesia. I think I have decided where my next dive trip will be. See you soon Raja Ampat.

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