Despite having existing measures in place to keep neighboring countries at bay from engaging in illegal fishing activities in the North Natuna Sea at the far southern end of the South China Sea which falls under Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, a maritime expert has called for a more practical approach including using technology and intensive patrols.
Speaking at public seminar to discuss the future development on the North Natuna Sea attended by Maritime Fairtrade, Rodhial Huda, a maritime expert and community leader from Natuna, said the government has not fully explored the option of using technological advancement to support local fishermen.
Huda said the underdeveloped and rather traditional boats still employed by the fishermen have been hindering them from optimally harvesting the rich natural resources. Besides affecting their catch, this lack of new technology also has impacted their confidence in the face-to-face rivalry with foreign fishing vessels.
“The government’s measures on strengthening and securing border areas, including Natuna, must focus on empowerment, swapping the old vessels and fishing equipment for modern ones, as well as increasing the number of fishing vessels operating there,” Huda explained. “Vietnam, China, and Malaysia continue to improve their capacity in the fishing sector while we in Natuna still use outdated boats and old technology. Therefore, we are currently witnessing this disparity in ability to fish which put our fishermen in a difficult situation.”
Unity is important
In addition to unequal competition with the illegal foreign vessels, Huda also noted that fishermen in Natuna don’t always see eye to eye with their fellow fishermen from other parts of Indonesia, including on the use of proper fishing equipment. Regarding this, he criticized the past move made by the government in 2020 to invite Javanese fishermen to the North Natuna Sea so as to increase the numbers to counter the illegal armed Chinese fishing militia who was there.
“This move is opposed by the people of Natuna because the Javanese fishermen use cantrang (a prohibited and not environmentally friendly fishing trawl). However, it is the fishing equipment, not the Javanese fishermen, that the locals have problems with,” Huda said.
It is important for all Indonesian fishermen regardless of the locations they are from to put up a united front against the illegal foreign fishing vessels. Possible solutions to iron out the differences among Indonesian fishermen include mandating using uniformed fishing equipment, and specialized training to improve skills and update knowledge.
Huda revealed that the former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Edhy Prabowo had announced such programs, but unfortunately it never really took off because of a lack of policy continuity after he stepped down and a new administration took over.
Local fishermen want more patrols
There is limited protection for Natuna’s fishermen against the Chinese fishing fleet which is most of the time escorted by armed Coast Guard vessels. Therefore, the Indonesian authority should provide more patrols.
However, even if the Indonesian government may have repeatedly expressed its goal to have a strong coast guard to secure its vast waters and to carry out more regular patrols to protect local fishing community, the reality is that there are limited resources to effectively do it and there may also be a lack of political will.
“As of late, we have been seeing coast guard vessels in patrols. But what fishermen in Natuna want is for the coast guard to escort them while they are out at sea, like what the Chinese and Vietnam are doing. Admittedly, this is again not realistic due to limited resources,” Huda explained.
Huda added that between November and February every year, there are fewer patrols due to end-of-year budgeting issues. To make matters worse, the waves are bigger than usual during this period and so the fishermen are not able to sail far in order to avoid the Chinese. He said ensuring the regularity of patrols is another area the government has to improve on.
A sustainable North Natuna Sea for local community
According to Huda, sustainable development is important to Natuna, which is one of Indonesia’s biggest fish sources. Government policies that ensure sustainability is beneficial to all stakeholders, including businesses, fishermen and the local community.
Together with sustainable development, by having the right practical measures to secure and maintain maritime sovereignty, Huda is optimistic that Indonesia can come out stronger in the skirmishes with foreign powers trying to take advantages of the rich resources in the country’s waters.