Is the Indonesian Government Harming the Environment By Blowing Up Illegal Fishing Boats?

boatAround the world, fishing is an extremely prevalent industry and a popular form of recreation. Research shows that almost 48 million people participated in freshwater, saltwater and fly fishing in the United States in 2012 alone, to say nothing of the number of people who engaged in commercial fishing. However, many scientists, environmentalists and fishing advocates have pointed out that some practices, including fishing in protected areas, can be extremely damaging to the environment. Because of this, many nations are taking pains to enforce rules and regulations to prevent overfishing, with some efforts more dramatic than others.

Take Indonesia, for example: in December 2014, the newly elected president Joko Widodo’s administration invited members of the media to see how the nation treats Vietnamese boats caught fishing in their territorial waters. Against the backdrop of one of Indonesia’s famously picturesque islands, the reporters watched and filmed as Navy members dramatically blew up and sank one of the vessels. This is how foreign fishing boats have been scuttled for years, but this event drew international attention, with many foreign media sources praising the country for its strict stance on conservation and overfishing. But as the explosions continue, environmentalists are arguing that the unique disposal could actually be harming sensitive marine environments.According to Greenpeace and other environmental organizations, the use of explosives disturbs and threatens fish near the site of the scuttling, while debris from the boats turns into floating waste. However, a bigger problem might be indicated by the presence of the black smoke so many news organizations have mentioned in their coverage: this type of smoke signals the presence of burning oil, fueling speculation that the Navy may not have cleansed the vessels of their damaging diesel and bunker oil.

The threat of an oil spill might seem ironic, given the media narrative which depicts the explosions as part of Indonesia’s efforts to fight overfishing in protected areas, such as the Raja Ampat islands near West Papua. And in truth, relatively few of the captured Vietnamese fishing vessels are actually seized, not sunk. However, the explosions have fueled the popularity of a number of politicians, including maritime affairs minister Susi Pudjiasti, who earned a cabinet-best approval rating of 61% this month. Susi has claimed that the public sinking campaign has lead to a 90% reduction in illegal fishing boats operating in Indonesian waters. Additionally, President Widodo has argued that the government has no choice but to react harshly: more than 5,000 of the boats fished in the country’s waters every day before the crackdown. With such a position, and the popularity to encourage it, it is unlikely the explosions will stop.

However, groups like Greenpeace haven’t called for the Indonesian government to stop the crackdown, or even the explosions. Instead, they want the Navy to engage in greener practices, such as draining the ships of fuel oil and other pollutants. They have also requested that the boats be sunk in waters deeper than 40 meters, to avoid harming the area’s coral. But as the positive coverage and the explosions continue, it remains to be seen if Indonesian politicians will choose the health of their environment over good press.

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