By Jensi Sartin

A new agreement between the U.S. and the Southeast Asian nation will help the country protect its coral reefs and fight poachers.

The United States and Indonesia have signed a new Memorandum of Understanding on Maritime Cooperation. Under it, the United States will provide substantial assistance and training to support the conservation of marine biodiversity, procure technologies to ensure the shared maritime security interests of both countries, and help promote sustainable development in the marine sector.

When they met in late October in the United States to finalize the memorandum, President Barack Obama and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo affirmed the urgent need to combat, prevent, deter, and eliminate illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing in Indonesia’s waters.

This is aligned with Widodo’s policy of ordering the destruction of neighboring countries’ fishing boats operating illegally in Indonesia’s waters, including the sinking of 38 poachers’ vessels to commemorate Indonesia’s 70th Independence Day.

Despite protests that the policy could hurt Indonesia’s international relations with neighboring countries, Widodo was unmoved. Indonesia has the world’s second-largest fishery industry, and the country’s coastal and marine ecosystem has been in decline for decades. For instance, 65 percent of Indonesian reefs are now considered threatened from overfishing. Climate change is exacerbating the situation, as warmer and more acidic seawater is expected to reduce Indonesian fish catches by an average of 20 percent and up to 50 percent in some fishing areas.

Now, with the United States’ announcement of its support to combat illegal fishing, hopefully we can expect the advancement of existing polices that largely target poachers.

Despite massive support and resources given to Indonesia from international initiatives, the country’s marine ecosystem continues to degrade. Indeed, sinking of poachers’ ships was never a long-term solution. Indonesia needs strong and executable arrangements to not just tackle the Illegal fishing but also to build a sustainable fishing industry. Thus, Indonesia should use the momentum from this new partnership with the United States and get the most out of it to revive its fisheries.

First, it is necessary to strengthen the existing marine park system in Indonesia through marine science and technology collaboration. Most marine protected areas currently don’t have an adequate system to ensure appropriate enforcement, surveillance, and monitoring of fishing and other activities that may affect the ecosystem.

Second, there must be more coordination between maritime initiatives, whether it is conservation, development, or security. Indonesia, with its vast, unique, and globally important biodiversity, has attracted massive numbers of programs and resources under the “saving Indonesia’s biodiversity” banner.

A lack of understanding of the politics and culture of the country, combined with donor-driven programs and competition between social movers, impedes the success of such supports. Also, many are not created in partnership with local communities and so become unsustainable, as evidenced by the number of communities that lose their momentum for change once the facilitating organization leaves. Thus, the partnership proposal to focus on three provinces in eastern Indonesia with the highest marine biodiversity must be connected with all existing initiatives to ensure coherence, cultural competency, and the sustainability of fisheries and marine management in Indonesia.

Third, every initiative—old and new—should fit into the vision and programs of Indonesia’s government. This will reduce the overlap of work and inefficiency of resources. Widodo’s vision is famously encapsulated through the slogan of “Revolution of Mentality,” a paradigm shift in thinking that the Indonesian people and government would need to make in order to achieve what he called a “free, fair, and prosperous” Indonesia under “Pancasila,” Indonesia’s founding principles. Also, the maritime doctrine, which aims to move Indonesia toward its seagoing roots by strengthening its maritime infrastructure and security apparatus, should be the basis for the development of every initiative to prevent needless conflicts and foster public engagement and collaboration.

Widodo’s boldness on combating illegal fishing has maintained his popularity with the public, and it has led people to put higher expectations on his administration to bring prosperity to Indonesia through its seas. The meeting with Obama should make it clear to Jokowi that people count the fish, not the number of boats sunk—that should be his priority going forward.

Published in, December 2015


Jensi Sartin is a lead scientist in Reef Check Indonesia, a professional fellow of Young Southeast Asia Leader Initiative, and an Aspen New Voices Fellow.