Maverick minister widens net for illegal fishing – Nikkei Asian Review


Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti discusses a presentation she gave to fellow cabinet members on Dec. 8 2015. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti discusses a presentation she gave to fellow cabinet members on Dec. 8 2015. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — After a year waging war on foreigners fishing illegally in the country’s waters, Indonesia’s straight-talking maritime minister wants to make the fight a global one and have such activities declared a transnational crime.

“I’m pushing for illegal fishing to be a transnational crime, as there are too many other crimes linked to it, such as arms-smuggling, drugs,” said Susi Pudjiastuti, a businesswoman who was appointed Indonesia’s minister of maritime affairs and fisheries in October 2014 by President Joko Widodo, also a former entrepreneur.

“We are starting now. Papua New Guinea, Norway, seems they agree. A few European countries will agree with us, Pacific countries, a few of them,” Pudjiastuti told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Pew Charitable Trusts estimate that 20% of all fish caught globally could be illegal. This ill-gotten haul is worth around $23 billion per year, and costs Indonesia roughly $4 billion annually, according to the government.

Widodo pledged in his Oct. 20 2014 inaugural speech to transform Indonesia into a maritime power. Soon after, Pudjiastuti warned that Indonesia would not tolerate foreign vessels fishing illegally in the country’s waters. She followed up the warning by staging several explosions and sending captured foreign vessels — Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese ones — to the bottom of the sea.

“We have suffered incredible losses,” Pudjiastuti said of the impact of foreign vessels elbowing Indonesian counterparts out of the way. “In the last 10 years, we lost 800,000 fishing households,” she said, adding that 115 fish exporters went bankrupt over the same period. “Many fishermen change profession,” the minister said.

Indonesia is the world’s biggest archipelago and has the world’s second longest coastline, which makes policing the country’s vast maritime territory difficult.

But Pudjiastuti reckons her hard-line, headline-grabbing pyrotechnics have worked.

“Only 5% to 10% keep trying,” she said, claiming that illegal fishing is way down on what it was before she took office.

However, Pudjiastuti is unsure that source countries of these illegal vessels will sign up to her campaign to have unlawful fishing recognized as a transnational crime, along with human trafficking, people smuggling, illicit arms trading, illicit wildlife trading, cybercrime and peddling fraudulent medicines.

“They cannot do that anymore,” Pudjiastuti said of countries which tolerate illegal fishing.

One reason Pudjiastuti wants wider condemnation for illegal fishing is because it facilitates other abuses, such as wildlife trafficking, drug smuggling and enslavement. The same crews that carry out illegal fishing sometimes also engage in these other crimes, Pudjiastuti said.

Asked about the hundreds of mostly Myanmar slaves liberated from captivity in remote eastern Indonesia over the past year, Pudjiastuti said: “I feel very happy that I free them.” The captives were forced into fishing on Thai vessels operating illegally in Indonesian territory.

“That is the way illegal fishing operates, they will not use the local fishermen in local water,” Pudjiastuti said.


Ibu Susi, as she is widely known, is one of the most popular ministers in the Widodo government, going by various opinion surveys. Her tattoo, her chain-smoking and her can-do attitude have been seen by Indonesians as an antidote to the elliptical and disingenuous rhetoric of many politicians.

“In my old language, it’s bullshit, wasting of time,” Pudjiastuti said, laughing, discussing some of the formalities of government.

A self-starter who set up a fishing business in the 1980s and an airline a decade ago, Pudjiastuti described administration as “very slow compared to my work before.”

The no-nonsense minister is also dismissive of management-speak. She banned her staff from using terms like “empowering” and “development,” describing them as being “like words with wings, words with no meaning.”

“I change those words to ‘buy,’ ‘pay,’ ‘do’,” Pudjiastuti said. “It’s more straightforward and [easier] to understand.”

“I don’t do empowering fishermen, I buy them ships and nets,” she said, outlining that she aims to commission Indonesian shipbuilders to manufacture 3,000 new small fishing vessels to be distributed to Indonesian fishermen by the end of 2016.

Widodo called Pudjiastuti’s approach “Susinization” and asked her to give a presentation to her cabinet colleagues to explain how business acumen could be applied to government. Her reputation has been boosted by statistics that show the Indonesian fishing sector is growing at around 8% per year under her watch.

And despite rumors that she is pining for a return to being a full-time CEO, Pudjiastuti said she is staying on as minister, though she also admits that “sometimes I don’t feel like it’s me.”

She would hardly be short of job offers should she decide to end her time in government.

“I met Tony a few days ago, he’s tempting me to be his CEO,” she said, referring to Tony Fernandes, the head of regional budget airline AirAsia.

“I think it was more a joke,” Pudjiastuti added, downplaying Fernandes’ offer, before lighting up another cigarette.

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